‘Foxcatcher’ relishes in dark, disturbing realism

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Every four years, we gather around our televisions for the Summer Olympics with every patriotic bone in our bodies jumping up and down. We bite our nails as we see one swimmer inch past another. We cry out as a gymnast comes crashing down from the uneven bars. We scream and jump as we see a wrestler pin his opponent to the ground, triumphantly winning the gold for his country.

What we don’t see are the obscure, often dismal lives led by athletes during the years leading up to the games.

In his third narrative feature, “Foxcatcher,” director Bennett Miller (“Moneyball,” “Capote”) tells the deeply captivating and ultimately tragic true story of two champion wrestlers and an eccentric millionaire, shining a light on the darkness of these lives.

The film first introduces us to Olympic-gold-medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who lives a small, depressing lifestyle outside of wrestling, struggling in poverty and obscurity. Mark has always lived his life in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who is also a gold medalist in wrestling. When John du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to the du Pont fortune, invites Mark to move to Foxcatcher (the du Pont estate) and train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Mark sees an opportunity to step out of his brother’s shadow.

With his state-of-the-art wrestling facilities and vast wealth, du Pont invites more wrestlers to the estate to form a world-class wrestling team. Despite his lack of knowledge and confidence, du Pont appoints himself head coach, hoping to gain the respect of his peers and, more importantly, his mother (Vanessa Redgrave).

Enchanted by du Pont’s praise and extravagant new world, Mark begins to see his benefactor as a father figure, desperately seeking his approval. But du Pont’s eccentric, mercurial personality begins to toy with Mark’s shaky self-esteem, luring him into an unhealthy lifestyle and undermining his training. When du Pont then becomes fixated on Dave, who possesses the psychological stability and confidence that neither he nor Mark does, the three are led to tragedy, which no one could have foreseen.

Throughout the film a looming sense of stillness sets the tone. Long periods of silence speak to the audience more than any voiceover or piece of dialogue ever could. The camera sits still. The film builds quietly. Like other Miller films, “Foxcatcher” is a cinematic slow burner. Brief periods of hope are found in the film during wrestling sequences and intense dialogue, but the film eventually becomes more motionless as the story builds. In the end, there is no movement and no hope.

Tatum and Ruffalo are superb in their portrayal of the Schultz brothers. Ruffalo’s natural charm immediately draws the audience to his character. Tatum’s quiet, brooding portrayal of Mark conveys the unrestrained pressure felt by many world-class athletes.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, director Bennett Miller discussed his decision to cast Tatum. “Before I even I had a script, I saw him in ‘A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,’ ” Miller said. “And seeing him was a little bit of an incentive to continue to pursue the development of this film because I knew that there was someone who could do it. He was a complete unknown at the time.”

Carell gives the performance of his career in his dark and challenging role as John du Pont. His portrayal is deeply disturbing, comparable only to Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” Carell’s ability to capture the unique qualities of du Pont is uncanny and almost uncomfortable to watch.

“Part of the challenge of casting someone like Steve Carell is that there is some kind of bias that’s been formed about him and his abilities and his identity,” Miller said. “Part of the challenge was to transcend that within seconds. And so that was on Steve, and it was also on Bill Corsoe, the make-up artist. I think that Steve is so authentic. He’s so committed and convincing that it really transcends the fact that that’s him.”

Miller’s meticulous directing has allowed “Foxcatcher” to be unlike any other film. He has the ability to shed light on a story that no other director has. Each set feels authentic. Every wrestling sequence is accurate, powerful and almost painful to watch. Each scene is distilled to its honest emotions.

Miller isn’t afraid to allow his movie to breathe. During each quiet moment, when a character goes into his or her own head, we go along with them, understanding the psychological trauma that they are undergoing.

“Foxcatcher,” though dark and disturbing, is a work of perfection.

“Foxcatcher” opens Nov. 28 at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

Contact Jeremy Siegel at [email protected].

A previous version of this article misspelled Steve Carell’s name.