Thoughts On ‘Foxcatcher’

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Channing Tatum doesn’t say much during the first twenty minutes or so of Foxcatcher. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t say much throughout most of the film. We first meet him as Mark Schultz, a wrestler training and hulking around the ring, fit, disciplined, and physically domineering. We then see him in a car that looks too small for him, in front of a room of elementary school children, awkwardly speaking about his Olympic triumph, dwarfing the small children. The first time we see him have a meaningful interaction with another human being is when his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) enters the picture. Even then, their meaningful interaction is not a verbal conversation but a session in the ring stretching, warming up, and sparring with a palpable intimacy and athletic intensity. Even when Mark meets John du Pont (Steve Carell) the meeting that jump starts the main spine of the narrative, John does most of the talking. Tatum’s Mark appears uncomfortable in the world outside of the ring and a poor fit for it at that. His actual presence seems out of place outside of the strictures of his sport.

I mention all this to emphasize that Channing Tatum’s performance cannot and should not be understood in terms of typical dramatics or speeches, but in terms of physicality. His physicality is what exemplifies his performance. I don’t mean this in a derisive or dismissive way; far from it. Coming from an actor with whom I have never been impressed with in the past, it must be said that Mr. Tatum’s performance is nothing short of exceptional. His brooding, domineering presence fills up both the mise-en-scene and the frame. He seems to never be at home outside of the ring, and inside the ring he is imposing indeed. One does not need to have an intimate understanding of the sport of wrestling to understand or appreciate this film or this performance. The first few training sequences lay down the rules of basic language for it that carries throughout the picture. What matters, after all, is not the ins and outs of Mark’s technique or ability, but rather what those things mean to him.

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Part of what was so interesting about the wrestling aspect of the film was that we’re never given much context for Mark’s abilities at present at any given time; we know he won Olympic Gold in the past, but until we’re in the ring with him at actual competitions, its hard to gauge where we as an audience are supposed to think he’s at in terms of his ability, progress, or maintenance of his skill.

We also don’t need to know a great deal about wrestling to tell that Dave Schultz is a gifted motivator and coach and that John du Pont is a pretender, however enthusiastic, who’s living vicariously through Mark’s wrestling endeavors. John and Mark are both presented as being socially isolated and seem to express themselves through the sport of wrestling; Mark by competing and excelling, John by sponsoring and playing at participating. Whereas Mark’s existence is humble and Spartan, John’s is a sedentary life of wealth. John’s attraction to the sport of wrestling is easy to understand given his isolation and loneliness. The strong emotional and physical bond between Mark and Dave, held together by Dave’s stability and affable manner, exemplifies everything John is lacking and seems to desire. Dave seems to have struck a balance between athletic achievement and a vibrant emotional and home life, making Foxcatcher‘s conclusion all the more tragic.

As with his previous efforts Capote and Moneyball, director Bennet Miller does an excellent job of allowing his actors the room to do their work within the narrative. I’ve often complained to anyone who will listen that Channing Tatum “makes the same face” for his every on screen reaction. His performance in Foxcatcher, despite its quality, is actually no exception. The difference is that here it really works. Tatum expresses his emotions through his body in this film, not through his face. I want to be quite clear here; this is not a one-note or emotionally flat performance. Rather, his emotional changes can be read through his body and the way he carries it. His moods and emotions ooze through his physical demeanor, his face brooding all the while as he skulks through the frame. It’s really a masterful use of his physicality in a commanding performance.

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Also outstanding here is Steve Carell, who’s emotions seethe through his body as well, which is a bit of a departure for him in some respects. Unlike Tatum, Carell has always used his face very well, and his work here is no exception, despite the previous comment. The prosthetic nose and makeup is not enough to hide the tension he holds in his mouth or his eerie, penetrating gaze as he carefully constructs his sentences phrase by phrase and word by word. His character here actually shares many similarities with some of his work in comedic and serio-comedic fare, but it’s under such a different framework that it’s almost jarring to watch him at times. Roles like this can be great for displaying what makes comedic actors so talented, as they’re able to utilize many of the same skills towards a different dramatic goal.

Over his entire career I’ve come to expect nothing short of brilliance from Mark Ruffalo and his work in Foxcatcher is no exception. The balance between his athletic and family life I mentioned earlier is the glue that holds the triangle formed by Dave, Mark, and John together, serving as both the thing that maintains the bond between him and his brother, as well as the source of tension between himself and John. Foxcatcher is a film about men, not simply masculinity as a concept, but men as they are in their many forms and how they conduct their lives. In many ways, Ruffalo’s character demonstrates how to lead a fulfilling life despite the pitfalls of macho masculinity and ultra-competiveness. Unlike Mark and John he doesn’t seem to have anything more to prove to himself or anyone else, thus making his relationship to the other two men a dangerous association and a receptacle for spite and resentment. His even-keel is as soothing to the audience as it is to Mark. Ruffalo’s performance is less of a showcase than Tatum’s or Carell’s, but it’s no less impressive and is in many ways the most important performance of the three given the role he plays in the dynamic between the characters.

Foxcatcher is a well-crafted, and very well-exectuted drama featuring the best overall acting I’ve seen since last year’s American Hustle. It makes for compelling viewing, rich discussion and deserves to be seen.

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