Cannes: Foxcatcher review

Bennett Miller’s brooding new drama, Foxcatcher, opens with a man wrestling a dummy. This inanimate object, only partially anthropomorphised by its physical form, becomes a haunting first clue to the kind of characters that Miller, and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, will set about exploring.

The man is Mark (Channing Tatum), but only just. He’s an empty husk. He won a gold medal for wrestling in the Olympics but now he plays on his Gameboy and eats ramen noodles alone. His only interactions with people seem to be with those that he trains alongside, and even here he has only faded reflections of relationships rather than anything meaningful.

Tatum has committed to this role in every way. His arms hang low, he shuffles rather than walks his face looks so drawn and full of woe that it’s easy to forget the actor’s Hollywood status as a handsome leading man.

Into the path of Mark’s shuffling walks John du Pont (Steve Carell), one of the wealthiest men in America. du Pont, who likes to be called The Eagle, or even Golden Eagle, says that he wants to help Mark achieve his dreams and win in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Crucially, he also wants Mark to step out from the shadow of his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo).

Carrell has created du Pont’s chilling air through deliberate physical and verbal mannerisms, giving the character an awkward way of holding himself and delivering dialogue that ensure he’s always unpleasant to watch. As the film goes on, du Pont starts to reveal an unpredictable edge, and such is his disturbing nature and volatility that there were actually times I found myself relieved for his scenes to end. At a few moments there was some sign of Carell’s more comic style, just as it came close to the surface, and while that might have provided some relief, it wouldn’t ultimately have done this tense story any favours.

du Pont lives in a stately mansion that embodies his privilege. The building is set in large grounds, complete with stables, and inside, there’s a great many American flags dotted around. There’s a trophy room but, actually, the home itself is a trophy, built to celebrate a belief in American exceptionalism.

The representation of the house corrals all of the themes that Foxcatcher is most interested in. While Miller’s slow and creeping approach with the drama may leave some feeling a little cold or detached at first, the film does slowly work its way under the skin and the finale proves to be rather painful, bringing the harsh reality of the American dream to the fore in heartbreaking fashion.

With Foxcatcher, Miller has mounted a searing takedown of the toxicity of competition. It’s quite a triumph for the director, and a real showcase for the skills of Carell, and particularly Tatum, as actors.