Many have gone out to bat for Foxcatcher’s particularly dour format of carefully positioned gloominess, and they are right to focus on the film’s meticulous craft. It’s a stolid, compartmentalized film, assured and close to perfectionist in its specific, highly detailed character, its rigid delineation of human frailty, and its formal precision backing up an intentionally cold-and-clinical dissection of American inequality. Grotesque millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) fancies himself an American hero and plays with Olympic wrestler Mark Scultz (Channing Tatum) from beginning to end, but director Bennett Miller would not have you think of it as play. Through his eyes, the film is as detached and despondent as humanly possible, perhaps fitting for the films’ themes of mechanical people sleepwalking their way through life with bored non-momentum. Yet style and story clash and never occupy the same film, smothering clinical precision in the film’s weepy, drippy “important story” narrative and sacrificing sweat and spit for a waxworks show. Foxcatcher is a perfectionist film, but it gives perfectionism a bad name.
Everything on paper is in place for a swelling study in American exceptionalism, but the film’s heart is crammed so forcedly into the right place that it gives in on itself, pumps too much too fast, and dies a dreary death right before our eyes. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. In the late ’80s talented wrestler Mark Schultz is a work-a-day fighter searching for a cause, one his family-man older-brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) cannot provide. One day his would-be savior approaches him in exactly the manner this garish man pursues everything: with stuffy artifice, smarminess, and bone-dry standoffishness. That man is John Du Point, one of the wealthiest men in America and a self-styled American exceptionalist who finds pleasures (and even that word is charitable here) in bird watching and minion-raising. Du Pont propositions Miller with a salary and living quarters to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but the greatest thrill is the ideological purpose he brings to Schultz’s fantasy: that he can spread freedom and American perfectionism till the cows come home.
A more anxious filmmaker with a humbled streak and sense of worry might have called attention to the story’s idiosyncrasies and cavernous flow, but Miller, bless his heart for trying, cannot turn his over-labored metaphors and somnambulant tone into the clinically disturbed curio he so desperately begs for. And beg is the word; this whole film absolutely gets down on its hands and knees and kisses the Oscarbait Gods for every single possible minute of its existence.
The effect of the film is to call attention to its own distance, its own style, at every turn, the look and feel not so much highlighting the characters and story as mummifying them in a strained, overly-modulated style. From the beginning, Miller has milled over every shot and finicky movement so as to galvanize the film in its own perfectionism. To a point, it is highly effective and wholly fitting for the story, but it doesn’t hold when the film transitions from a potentially deranged art-house flick to a big, grand study in self-seriousness that just lashes out at popular opinion and demands to be liked by anyone who agrees that America is a soulless beast.
Well, soulless beast America may be, but there are more soulful ways to convey it. There’s a scrappy, confrontational, alert story waiting to burst out of Foxcatcher, a propulsive piece of pop-art seething with fire and passion around the edges. But Miller sands off his edges and drowns his film in painful symbolism and cloyingly routine sentimentality, both of which clash heavily with his clinical detachment. This detachment, by the way, could be effective for a non-narrative piece or a film that really pushes detachment and weirdness past the breaking point, but Miller plays things too safely here. His hand is too tight; he never knows when to let off some steam. He exists in a monotone from beginning to end, playing the material like a lecture rather than a living, breathing, passionate story, with the characters existing more as studied, too-professional theater types rather than real people. There isn’t a single moment in Foxcatcher that might acknowledge the insurgent threat of a mixed emotion.
If the point was to comment on America’s performative nature, its falsity in the face of honesty, the whole thing is lost in the film’s desperate bag of Oscar tricks that never allow it to come to terms with its weird, deranged, highly artificial self. The net effect is a narrative that wants to be both self-reflexively fake and fitfully naturalistic, to have its madcap art-film cake and eat its audience-pleasing awards season glory too, and it has absolutely no idea how to marry these two drives. Some of the most obvious, on-the-nose gestures (and I’m not just referring to Carrell’s prosthetic proboscis) are the endless parade of American Revolution iconography and taxidermied birds, each struggling to provide insight when they gather the appearance of lazy directorial short-hand in place of true psychological depth; it comes off not so much as “look at how cleverly fake this is” as “bask in my film’s meaning and import”. The muted tones of this perpetually grey-and-brown film, matched to the arch-importance of the dramatic, piano-heavy soundtrack, don’t so much carry us kicking and screaming into darkness as flop around until they run out of air. It’s a soulless film about soulless people that makes the cardinal sin of insisting that it has a soul, falling prey to the exact same mistake John Du Pont does. It should know better.
Ultimately, Miller is careful to make the film just so off-putting as to seem daring without ever actually being daring or going to the lurid places it hints at. It is the drollest, draggiest kind of film, a film that could have been frothy, rambunctious, and fun or could have been violently stripped barren and detached but instead flounders around in the middle, tired and ailing and sickly and doing every last thing it can to tell us how important the whole affair is in the most snidely, congratulatory of ways. The style could work if Miller wanted to make a film about pent-up energy coiled and ready to strike like a snake in attack mode, or a film about how false and image-based American exceptionalism has become, or a film about characters being smothered by social identity until they become nothing but artifice.
But Miller’s film is none of these, except in heavy-handed, painfully obvious sideways glances. It is instead a work about how Bennett Miller and everyone else involved really want an Oscar. It is a criticism of self-importance that commits the cardinal sin of being self-important without commenting on its own self-importance in any way. That’s not the worst kind of film, but it is absolutely the most boring kind, and it is death for something that wants to be dangerous and difficult but approaches those words in the most corporate, middlebrow of ways. There’s a place for this sort of intentionally abusive filmmaking, but they do not find a home in Miller’s toothless vision of American inequality that refuses to really go overboard with lust and fury when it can simply walk on by. Every time it seems ready to strike, it remembers it needs that Oscar, and it steps back and either cries a bit more or looks on at its own smug self-seriousness.