It has been said many times that truth is stranger than fiction. “Based on a true story” (a phrase that seems ready-made for Hollywood and a liberal dose of poetic licence), Foxcatcher a strange movie featuring a strange person who starts behaving increasingly, err, strangely. It tells a fascinating story and has a better sense of tension than most horror movies. The acting is excellent and I was hooked throughout but it also left me with lots of questions. Frustratingly, one of those questions is “was that film actually any good?”
While the rules seem slightly different when it comes to true stories, I’ll try to keep this review spoiler-free. As an Englishman, whose interest in wrestling is more of the Undertaker, Attitude Era and “sports-entertainment” kind, I went in knowing nothing about the true events or the people involved. As much as it may be possible, I’d recommend that you do the same. However, once I’d seen the movie I was compelled to learn more and doing so simply compounded my feeling of what could have been. That’s maybe a discussion for the comments section so back to the review – that fascinating story has made for a good but unsatisfying film.
Opening in the late 1980’s, we’re introduced to brothers Mark and Dave Shultz (played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), two exceptional wrestlers who both won Olympic gold in 1984. In a film that seems more concerned with actions than words, a brief early scene features the brothers training together tells us everything we need to know about their complex relationship – it’s caring, competitive and sometimes rather painful. But despite first impressions, neither the Shultz brothers nor wrestling feel like the main focus of this story or the movie. This is less a film about sport than a film about John Du Pont – “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist, conchologist” and a few other things besides.
John’s also a patriot with a keen interest in wrestling and, as heir to the Du Pont family fortune, he has the desire and means to help take help the US wrestling team excel. Early on, he invites Mark to join him on his family estate and sets out his vision for “Team Foxcatcher”. What follows is a gripping and uncomfortable journey through approximately 10 years of triumphs, setbacks and tragedy. Steve Carell (as John Du Pont) is unrecognisable in pretty much every way, physically transformed by make-up and prosthetics but also showing a side of him that we’ve never seen before. In Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love and the underrated Dan in Real Life, he’s already shown he has more to his bow than just being funny and acting stupid (neither of which are easy of course). However, here he takes it up another level playing a complex man with a focus that varies between intense, disturbing and straight-up insane. Mark Ruffalo is also excellent by the way, showing a completely believable mix of commitment and concern over what is going on with and around him.
So why aren’t I raving about it? Well, that’s what I wondered too. Immediately after watching the film, I was simply disappointed with the ending. After a slow build and focus on character, the last act felt weirdly rushed and unexplained. Key events happen in quick succession and without much explanation or reason. As it’s a true story, I appreciate this might be unfair but as a film it was jarring and left me really unsatisfied. The final scene, which is more of an epilogue than anything central to the story, had a particular feel of “and then this happened”. Now, after reading more about the true story, I’m more convinced it’s a missed opportunity. That rapid last act? It covers about 8 years worth of events, out of an overall 9 or 10 for the whole film. A lot seems to have happened in the that period which could have helped explain or given useful context for what we see take place. I get that some changes are needed to make a story cinematic (and the film does play with some of the timing so that it can put characters together when they weren’t) but I feel that failing to show more from this period hurt the film and shortchanged the story. Given the film’s own website goes into quite a lot of detail about this later period then I wonder if the filmmakers felt this too – maybe there is a definitive, longer cut out there somewhere and, if so, I’d certainly look forward to seeing it.
And so, despite being an American film and in some ways a uniquely American story, Foxcatcher ended up striking me as just like a British sporting hopeful. It had massive potential and all the right ingredients to succeed, but falls just short of a medal when it counts. A stunning performance that’s well worth watching, just don’t expect it to all end well.