While I definitely had a wish list of movies I wanted to see at TIFF this year, there was no film that warranted multiple trips to the festival box office at 7am in a desperate attempt to get into a screening…save for Foxcatcher, which had a total of two public screenings over the course of the festival. I was unable to get a ticket to the second screening during the general on-sale, but I made it my festival mission to get in (and succeeded the day of when they randomly released a block of tickets – hooray!) The screening I attended was followed by a Q&A with director Bennett Miller and stars Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell.
I was completely ecstatic at the prospect of seeing Foxcatcher (it was on my slightly spoiler-y list), mainly because of the hype it received after the Cannes Film Festival for all sorts of reasons, some of which were completely unbelievable on paper (Steve Carell excels in a dramatic role? Channing Tatum is a stand-out? Wrestling as the background subject for a compelling drama?) In actuality, these were a few of many factors that makes Foxcatcher a chilling and brilliant painting of psychopathy, mentorship and brotherhood.
Helmed by Moneyball director Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher tells the true story of the professional and personal relationship between John du Pont (Steve Carell, The Office), an American multimillionaire and wrestling Olympic champions Mark (Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers). In an effort to reignite American patriotism in wrestling, du Pont invited the Schultz brothers to train in his specially-built wrestling facility on Foxcatcher farms. Mark, seeking appreciation and celebrity in his career, accepts du Pont’s offer and forms a bond with a man who is seeking a similar sense of purpose. When their efforts and relationship become strained, Dave relocates to the farm to support his brother and du Pont, leading to a tragedy that no one saw coming.
Admittedly, I expected Foxcatcher to be closer to the fast-paced drama that the trailers present rather than the quiet character piece it ended up being. The pacing is not for everyone, and the fact that it is a film mainly driven by the performances may be another significant hurdle for some to overcome in order to truly enjoy the film. I say this because I think it may be difficult for some viewers to disassociate Carell from Michael Scott and his general comedic reputation. Instead of watching Carell take on a drama role, it often felt like the audience was reacting to Michael Scott taking on a dramatic role. Maybe I just misinterpreted the surprising amount of laughter that occurred beyond the genuinely humorous moments.
There is no denying that this foray into drama is a turning point for Carell. His transition from an eager sports fan, patriot and coach into an abusive, jealous and paranoid mentor is eerie, sudden and very, very sad to watch, especially once it is reinforced with short glimpses into du Pont’s own struggles to pursue something meaningful and strive for a collective he can truly call family. Carell, equipped with prosthetics, awkward stares, heavy breaths and nasal-y curses, handles his character’s sharp turns with an unpredictable amount of ease, subtly transforming an undervalued and undermined individual into someone who demands your speculation and concern. Besides du Pont’s quirks, such as nicknaming himself as the “Golden Eagle”, Carell is far from being a laughing matter here.
“Is Channing Tatum’s performance good, or good for Channing Tatum?” my friend asked me after I told her I saw the film. My answer is both. At times, it is difficult to see how Channing Tatum elevated his acting further than what he has presented in his career so far. A lot of his verbatim was finely delivered, but his success is grounded in the visual performance . While the Step Up-esque backflips and the careful coordination involved in any actual wrestling in the film were all great athletic demonstrations, Tatum truly shined in moments of silence, amidst a kitschy 80s kitchen eating packaged ramen or in a hotel contemplating du Pont’s shadowing pressure to perform, face pouted and at times determined. The latter scene is an extension of the mirror-bashing scene shown in the trailer. In its actual context, it is a lot more intense, impactful, and shocking than anything Tatum has ever showcased in his previous roles.
Mark Ruffalo is just wonderful to watch in this film, probably because he is easiest character to hinge onto and like in this film. In Foxcatcher, he operates as the sensibility compass, forever guiding his younger brother to better and safer paths and prioritizing the well-being of others before himself. He’s got this straight-forward but likeable edge to him, which is a stark comparison to du Pont’s endless efforts to be adored and respected, particularly by Mark. The dividing line between these two personas never explicitly becomes a central conflict, but once tragedy strikes in Foxcatcher, the audience immediately recalls how the differences between the two, their interactions and how they navigate their relationships with Mark ultimately impact the ending.
Miller’s directing accomplishment goes beyond evoking a trio of very strong performances from his cast; it lies within his actually ability to peak your senses and provoke your considerations. He does so without much exploration into du Pont’s actual mental state or blatant evaluation of the evolving conflicts between the three main characters. Some may be disappointed with that approach, but between the bare bones discussion of Mark’s upbringing, du Pont’s desires and the implied characterization, there are many resulting implications that resonate with audiences well after they leave the theatre. That’s what makes Foxcatcher so fantastic.
Although there were quite a few repetitive questions during the Q&A (I’ll attribute that to everyone being stunned by what they just watched), there were a few fun tidbits that came out from the stars and Miller. I was really interested by one audience member’s question, which centred around Miller’s recent fascination with conflicts in sports (as demonstrated by Moneyball and Foxcatcher) because I really enjoyed the actual athletic demonstrations in the film, even past the point of annoyance of hearing sneakers scrape linoleum flooring for what felt like an eternity. Miller said it was purely coincidental that this film and his last are sport-centric; he connects to certain elements of true stories and pursues them based on those ideas.
Here are some other bits that came up during the Q&A:
- Steve Carell on working with Channing and Mark: “I can’t really say. I met them last night. They were fun. I don’t remember much of it.” (insert audience laughter)
- What drew Steve to the role: Bennett Miller. He didn’t campaign for it, but followed procedure by having his agent submit his interest to casting because he found that it was an “intriguing, sad, complicated story.”
- How did the actors prepare for their roles: Steve read du Pont’s books, watched footage and spoke to people in a similar vein to du Pont; Mark trained for seven months, watched many videos and focused on perfecting Dave Schultz’s walk
- Have the Schultz or du Ponts seen the film?: Dave Schultz’s family was very involved, trusting and supportive during the filming process, providing the cast members with personal videos, generously spent time with them to share stories, and even gave props; the glasses Mark wears in the film belonged to Dave.
- There is one scene in the film where an interview is being filmed in the Foxcatcher gym. The TV crew member in that scene is the same man who filmed the actual interview on Foxcatcher farm.
Foxcatcher is one of the best films I saw at TIFF this year. It opens across the United States in limited release today and will have a limited release on November 28th in Canada.