12 January 2015

A Wrestler Development

I had hoped to catch Bennett Miller's new movie Foxcatcher at the London Film Festival last year, but as that didn't work out, I had to wait until Friday night to see it. With numerous award nominations and a win at Cannes, I had high hopes for the film, which tells the based-on-a-true-story of two brothers who won Olympic gold medals for wrestling and who are recruited by a multimillionaire philanthropist to join his wrestling training academy. However, the film left me lacking, despite good performances by some of the leads.

As the film opens, it is three years after Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) won his gold medal at the 1984 Olympics and he looks like a has-been. He lives in a run-down apartment, has few friends and lives in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who also won gold in Los Angeles. We see the two brothers helping each other warm up and then sparring — a beautifully choreographed scene — and it is obvious they care a great deal about each other. But life is treating Dave, who has a wife (Sienna Miller) and two young children and who enjoys his coaching work, more kindly.

Then out of the blue, Mark gets a call from a "John E. duPont — of the duPont family" (Steve Carell) who invites him to come to live on duPont's extensive Pennsylvania estate where he will pay him to continue his wrestling training on duPont's Foxcatcher team as they prepare for the World Championships and then the Seoul Olympics.

The offer is too good to refuse, although Mark cannot persuade Dave to join him at Foxcatcher Farm. It becomes immediately clear that duPont and his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave) are rather unusual. The main house resembles a cross between the White House and something out of Flowers in the Attic, but with the support of duPont and the team, Mark takes the gold medal at the World Championships, and begins to develop a sort of friendship with his coach and mentor — at times, the relationship has echoes of Behind the Candelabra, although these are sporadic and inconsistent.

duPont clearly has mommy issues: he is so desperate to impress his mother, who won't even let him put a cup he wins in the best cabinet in the trophy room because she considers wrestling to be "a low sport". Mark too begins to suffer in the company of duPont and loses self-esteem and focus. duPont is, however, eventually able to convince Dave and his family to move to the estate so that Dave can become the team's assistant coach and support his brother as Mark prepares for the Olympic trials.

Foxcatcher is based on Mark Schultz's memoir of this period in his life. I tried to avoid spoilers and had no idea what happened; indeed, if you don't already know the outcome, you shouldn't try to Google the story ahead of time. That being said, I didn't find the ending particularly surprising, not least because the film progresses so slowly that I knew that something had to be up. I read that the original script was four hours long and although it now clocks in at 2h15, they could easily have told the same story more concisely by cutting another 30 minutes from the run time. There are elements of The World According to Garp and of Warrior, although Foxcatcher isn't as compelling as either and isn't really about wrestling — well, not just wrestling — anyway.

Carell and Ruffalo are both very good — they and an under-used Sienna Miller are nearly unrecognisable in this film — and Tatum does a decent job as the troubled jock, but I still left the cinema feeling very meh about the film. I was curious to know what would happen, because it was obvious that something major would happen, but it just didn't engage me as much as I had hoped, especially given the fascinating story on which it is based and given how much I enjoyed Bennett Miller's previous film Moneyball.

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