FOXCATCHER (2014, Bennett Miller)
“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” — Mark Twain
I’m always happy when a film based on a true story changes the facts to make a better movie. Who cares that Mark Zuckerberg had a long-time girlfriend throughout his founding of Facebook? THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a better story if he is driven by rejection. So on the surface, I don’t mind at all that the real Mark Schultz was only a year and a half younger than his brother, not ten years like this film makes it seem — nor that the climactic act of violence occurred nearly 8 years after the Seoul Olympics, not shortly after as this movie implies. Bennett Miller clearly feels that he could make a better movie if the facts didn’t get in the way. And maybe he’s right, but unfortunately while the resulting film is good, it still left me a little cold.
Most of the buzz around FOXCATCHER is going to be about the acting, deservedly so. Channing Tatum is terrific as Mark; with his hunched back, stuttering gait, and curved arms, he’s barely above being a knuckle-dragger — and Steve Carrell’s John E. DuPont loves to treat him like either a dog or a monkey. (Unfortunately, Miller overplays his hand: the film is too on-the-nose with this theme, going so far as to have John call Mark an ape to his face, and command him to “stay”). Mark Ruffalo is also quite good as the brother Dave, showing clear confidence that Mark lacks, and that kind of older-brother wisdom that comes when Dave has served as the de facto father to his younger brother (one occasion where the change in age difference has a positive effect). Carrell has a tougher row to hoe — his character is a cypher, he doesn’t have a lot of big scenes and moments, and kind of serves as a lurking mysterious presence, often just kind of staring and disappearing into his own head. But it works to a large degree. His treatment of Mark is like the bizarro wrestling flipside of BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, except instead of being the flambotant Liberace, he’s insular and asexual.
Speaking of sexuality, I’d have liked the film to explore a little more what DuPont’s interest in these young men really was. Beyond the wrestling. He’s admittedly lonely, but because there’s such a visceral, physical appreciation of men’s bodies in motion when you study and coach wrestling, you might assume DuPont wants a gym full of guys he likes. Then again, the heavy-handed horse metaphor (“Horses are stupid”) is an argument that the Foxcatcher team is just John’s stable of toys. Still, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the ways in which men grasp each other — the way the brothers hug both on the mat and off it, and the way these guys approach everything from a handshake to a crossface cradle pin maneuver in the same manner. And the jealousy angle, with the way Dave and John silently compete for Mark’s allegiance and love, makes the entire thing a soup of motivations and emotions. But when all is said and done, I just couldn’t take away anything too substantial from FOXCATCHER. It has moments of great filmmaking; I’m not sure it’s a great film.