Foxcatcher is as chilly and stately as a true crime sports movie can be. Director Bennett Miller’s Capote and Moneyball similarly took true stories and scraped away the majesty of urban legend until the cold hard facts remained, animated by performances that let us see where the real peoples’ personalities left spaces for exaggeration. Here, he returns to the well of composed, minimalist character portraits, drawing up only empty insight in his overdetermined, lugubriously paced dirge. I was reminded of James Agee calling the work of studio journeyman William Dieterle “a high-polished mélange of heavy “touches” and “intelligent” performances.” Foxcatcher is a film calibrated away from all the points on which the critical community often dings based-on-true-story prestige pictures. It’s stripped of all sentimentality, more affectless than subtle, patient to the point of rigorous slowness. It’s convinced of its intelligence, heavy, and devoid of life.
Screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman take the story of the United States Olympic Wrestling Team in the 1980s and smartly structure it into a narrative built out of scenes in which men jostle for control of situations. We meet a pair of wrestling brothers, both medalists, an older brother (Mark Ruffalo) set in his ways, and a younger brother (Channing Tatum) beginning to strain under his shadow. Tatum gets an offer from eccentric billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to train on his estate. The rich man sees an opportunity to bankroll the country’s Olympic wrestling dreams as a way to achieve a sense of fulfillment in his life of empty, lonely wealth.
An awkward man desperate for human connection, Du Pont is played by Carell, behind an obvious prosthetic schnoz, as a creepier and more dangerous version of Michael Scott, his best scenes coming from a similar space of needy self-delusion. There’s sympathy in the dumb looks that usually charming Tatum provides, while Ruffalo gives the older brother gentle smarts that can’t outthink the financial power Du Pont uses to wrest control. Codependent relationships abound as training for the Olympics becomes a battleground on which these three men fight for a feeling of importance and camaraderie. Despite testy differences, the brothers love each other. It’s never clear if their creepy benefactor could even communicate with another human being without paying for their time and interest. But all of them here are less real people, more icy placeholders for ideas of masculinity and capital.
Miller frames several scenes against the backdrop of an American flag, and has characters give long speeches about patriotism and respect, pushing down on intended thematic concerns with a heavy hand. There are maybe five minutes of provocative insight and roughly an hour’s worth of compelling narrative throughout Foxcatcher’s endless 130 minutes. It strikes one quiet sour note over and over, devoid of flavor and animating spirit. Smart actors flounder in scenes swollen with dead air, a kind of studied portent that’s neither revealing nor instructive. It’s just empty. This is a movie that gives slow cinema a bad name. Time crawls to a standstill, scenes tiresomely grinding through repetitive macho crisises, dim figures burbling serious-minded nothings.