Expectations were running high at festival midpoint at Cannes for Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” which did not disappoint the international critics Monday morning, who gave the film a healthy round of applause. With “Capote” and “Moneyball” behind him, Cannes anointed the director with a first-time competition auteur slot. Sure enough, Jane Campion’s jury gave him the Best Director prize for this intense murder drama financed by Annapurna.
Sony Pictures Classics gave Miller more time to tinker with his true story, pushing back its debut from AFI in November to spring in Cannes. Miller has delivered a chiseled portrait (at 132 minutes) of how two brother Olympic wrestlers (older coach Mark Ruffalo and competitor Channing Tatum) run afoul of their troubled wealthy patron, John E. Du Pont (Steve Carrell), ending in unexpected murder. The movie is at the same time intimate and distant, painstakingly exploring the nuances of these inarticulate characters and trying to approximate the reality of what happened to them.
“Within two minutes of seeing this story I knew I was going to make the film,” Miller told Canal Plus. “I was drawn to it. I don’t know why.” He elaborated at the press conference, saying: “When I heard the story the details were so bizarre, about this patrician family and wrestling. It seemed so bizarre and absurdist yet it felt very familiar. Within the story there were themes that seemed larger than the story.”
Both Carrell’s Du Pont and Tatum’s Mark Schulz are incommunicative and hold their emotions close–until they explode. Both Carrell, whose seething silence and dead eyes are chilling, and taciturn athlete Tatum reach for performances we have not seen them give before. Ruffalo is as good as ever as the older brother trying to save his beloved sibling from the confusing dysfunctional relationship he has developed with his wealthy mentor, who demands not only wrestling trophies but intimate physical contact, confusingly hard to parse in the context of wrestling bouts.
The movie is slow, deliberate and not cinematically flashy, although much skill is involved. A movie about incommunicative people imploding on their swallowed feelings commands a high degree of difficulty. These people are not inherently charming or interesting or attractive, although the brothers are decent, likable people. Miller has drawn superb performances from his actors, who learned how to wrestle impressively and worked closely with the surviving Schultz. I suspect that it will be Carrell who lands an Oscar nod; Sony Pictures Classics will push him and Tatum as leads with Ruffalo and Redgrave in supporting. They might have a better shot with Tatum in lead and Carell in supporting.
The actors’ seven-month preparation involved an investigative journalism approach to the story, Ruffalo said at the press conference. “Bennett invited us to bring in stories and reflections about these people.” Miller says 50 % of the movie comes from what they added to it. “Because we do care about these characters, I can relate it to the world we live in,” he says. “It’s not a political film, nor does it take a moral position. It’s meant to be an investigation, to understand some of these dynamics…The style of the film is not so much telling the story as observing the story, sensitizing you to what is happening beneath the story. A lot of American male non-communication is happening, there’s an undercurrent beneath the undercurrent, every scene is the tip of the iceberg…it’s an adventure film, it’s Mark’s adventure.”
“There is a moral thrust,” Ruffalo continued. “There’s a Greek tragedy. What happens when everything has a price tag? What happens when everything is for sale? What happens to talent when it’s for sale, or can be acquired? What happens to people when they are in a system that values everything at a price? Talented people can’t do what they do best unless they can figure out a way to monetize it; that costs the talent a great deal.”
Miller agrees: “I see it as tragic, it’s not random, it’s the trajectory of these characters, the film tries to see that. ‘Capote’ was the same thing: ‘the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.'”