If there's a trend that's defined the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it can be summed up by a motif seen at the end of so many of the movies: the screen goes black, and a series of explanatory titles comes up telling us what ultimately happened to the characters. It's a standard device, of course. Yet the sheer repetitive prominence of it this year is a testament to how reality-based drama has taken over awards season. At Toronto, the many biopics, as well as the films ripped from the headlines, like Jon Stewart's Rosewater, or based on popular memoirs, like the Reese Witherspoon solo-journey adventure Wild, all testify to how reality, more than ever, is becoming the dramatic coin of the realm. That said, when you see Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, a brilliant and darkly arresting true-life tale that fuses Olympic sport and the pathologies of wealth with murder, you can see how reality-based drama is also still evolving, becoming ever more audacious and sophisticated. Because where all those other films feature greatness and courage and creativity and heroism, Foxcatcher is a movie that grips us with the spectacle of dreams gone disastrously wrong.
Miller has made two previous dramatic features, both reality-based tales of achievement: Capote, about how Truman Capote invented the nonfiction novel when he wrote In Cold Blood (admittedly destroying his own life in the process), and Moneyball, about the innovative path to victory paved by baseball manager Billy Beane. Foxcatcher, while set in the world of championship wrestling, has a very different mood: a queasy mixture of hope and fear and psychosis. The central character, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), was a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, and when the film opens, he is training for the world championships. Yet his life is a wreck: he breaks up dry ramen noodles in his shabby apartment, his medal displayed like something in a pawn shop. Mark, a brooding hulk who doesn't talk much, has murky demons, but the film also catches a hidden truth about athletes. We hail them as ‘heroes’, but the ones who aren't lucky enough to get endorsement deals may not have many prospects on the horizon. Tatum, acting with stony force, burrows into Mark's blitzed, glum desperation.
Stuck in a zombie routine of daily training sessions, out of the blue Mark gets a call from John du Pont (Steve Carell), the heir to the du Pont chemical fortune. He's a self-styled patriot and wrestling freak who has set up a training camp on his family's rustic Pennsylvania compound, right next to Valley Forge, and he invites Mark, along with a handful of other wrestlers, to come and join him there, to become part of Team Foxcatcher (named after his family's favourite pastime). He wants to be his trainer and patron. Carell has been made up to look eerily like the real John du Pont: he wears a prosthetic nose, with mottled white sandpaper skin and ratty teeth. Beneath the makeup, he's playing a bizarrely severe man who seems dead inside, and as soon as Mark meets him, the anxiety starts to hit us. The cadaverous du Pont is an awkward Nosferatu, a powerful bloodsucker who wants something and is not going to stop until he gets it. To say that Carell puts his comic persona on hold would be to understate the excellence of his performance. As du Pont, he holds himself still, staring at the world as if it were something he longed to touch but can't. A distinct threat radiates from his nerdish passivity. He's so controlled he looks like he might explode.
Miller reveals the true hook of reality as the subject of a film: it's voyeurism – getting to go to deep, dark places you'd never see otherwise. And that's all about the staging. At the du Pont compound, Miller ushers us into one version of the world of the über-wealthy: a fusion of impossibly huge and tasteful rooms, sinister corporate servants and monumentally indulgent behaviour. Carell's John, who lives with his aging mother (Vanessa Redgrave) like a gold-plated Norman Bates, is a weapons nut who's wealthy enough to purchase a tank from the US Army (he's then furious when it's missing the machine gun that's supposed to be mounted on it). He's also a cocaine addict who invites Mark to partake with him. The ultimate weirdness of their relationship is this: du Pont has bought the right to be Mark's wrestling coach...yet he's not really a coach. He has nothing to teach him. He comes on like a father figure, but that's the creepiest thing about him. He's a ‘father’ who warps and dictates everything.
Foxcatcher is the story of a rich man's whim that becomes a kind of cult. The psychodrama thickens when du Pont decides he wants to bring Mark's older brother David (Mark Ruffalo) into the compound. Davidis also an Olympic wrestler, a sweetly centred family man who can see right through du Pont, but who receives an offer he can't refuse. And the fact that we never even see him make that offer is part of the masterly texture of Miller’s film: Foxcatcher implies as much as it shows. We know in our bones that none of this is heading toward a very good place. Yet we keep watching, hooked on the corruption and maybe the evil. Miller has made what might almost be called an awards-bait exploitation film, except that he purges the material of sensationalism, and he does so in the most honest and artful way possible. He keeps it real.