[NOTE: Though the new film Foxcatcher involves a much-publicized 1996 news story, the chance that there may be some readers out there who aren’t aware of the movie’s third-act twist leads me to conclude that a “spoiler alert” is probably in order.]
The majority of movies centered around a true-life crime story typically work, in effect, from the event backwards. The story may be told in a linear fashion, but the crucial question usually remains: Why did this horrible act happen?
Foxcatcher, bluntly, does not. In fact, oftentimes the movie offers no real indication that it’s building up to a violent act. That’s partly a function of the milieu — the movie details the case of philanthropist heir John du Pont, who took it upon himself to start up a team of Olympic-caliber wrestlers including medal-winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, who he trained on his palatial estate. Naturally, the world of wrestling is filled with full-contact, brute force. (As Vanessa Redgrave, playing du Pont’s dowager mother Jean Liseter Austin du Pont, memorably chides: “Wrestling … is a low sport.”) Thus, despite director Bennett Miller’s (Moneyball, Capote) unyieldingly rarified approach to what could just as easily boil down into a 48 Hours Mystery-style procedural, the atmosphere of violence always seems just a whisper away.
And I do mean whisper. Even compared to Capote, Foxcatcher is a very quiet and reserved character study. Complicating matters, though, is how difficult it is to actually glean from the characters themselves. Steve Carrell dampens down all natural charm beneath that putty nose he wears as John du Pont, and as the younger brother Mark, Channing Tatum almost seems pre-verbal, as though his brain is literally not wired to communicate. Only to spar. In a way, Mark Ruffalo has the easiest role as the comparatively normal brother Dave, but he too squirms in maybe the movie’s most memorable sequence, when he’s goaded into delivering canned answers for a documentary funded by and about du Pont, and Dave can’t seem to find a way to craft his response into anything other than a hideous lie.
As it turns out, the movie’s sense of turbulent quietude is matched by Miller himself. I had the chance to speak with the director, who won an award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for the movie, on his recent visit to the cities. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Eric Henderson: What was the working with producer Megan Ellison like? She’s really sort of a superstar right now in the field.
Bennett Miller: It’s ideal, because ultimately her interests are the same as the filmmakers’. Filmmaking is a tricky industry because it requires partnerships with financiers, whose interests are not necessarily identical to the creative interests.
Henderson: Which is sort of mirrored in the film itself, the financial aspect I mean.
Miller: Which was one thing that was sort of interesting to her. But those interests are rarely 100 percent harmonious and compatible, and in the case of Megan, I think ultimately what she wants more than anything else — the biggest consideration and the governing principal — is that the movie is everything that it can and should be. She cares more about that than anything. It’s not that she doesn’t care about the financial side, or is reckless or ignorant about that. She just cares about the creative aspect more. So it makes for a very ideal partnership.
Henderson: There’s been a lot of focus on Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo in the trades for this film, but the one actor we haven’t discussed as much is Channing Tatum. We haven’t come up with a term yet for it like “McConaissance,” but clearly he seems on the verge of that type of moment. Was he an actor you wanted for this role from the get-go?
Miller: Totally. I offered the part to him eight years ago.
Henderson: So based off of Step Up?
Miller: No before that. It was based off of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006). I saw that film, never having heard of him before, and I offered him the role before there was even a script. I got a meeting with him and said I was intending on making this film, and walked him through it, and he hopped on eight years ago. Things took a while, and things sort of unraveled. I couldn’t get the movie made, so I moved on to Moneyball and then came back to it. I bumped into him and said I was still planning on making this film if he was interested.
Henderson: And of course by that time his Sabermetrics score, or whatever, had gone up considerably.
Miller: It had. If you would have based that projection on just Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, you probably would not have imagined the turn that his career did, the kinds of movies that he did. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, they’re just so different. But it was Guide to Recognizing Your Saints that gave me the confidence that he was right for this, to the point where I didn’t even have a second choice.
Henderson: This movie leaves open an awful lot to interpretation I feel, but one of the things that I’ve seen much debate over is the idea that there’s a thread of sublimated homosexuality to at least Carrell’s du Pont. Is that something that was deliberate, or was it even present at all?
Miller: Sublimated, I would say … I don’t think that anything ever became explicit.
Henderson: The only shot where I questioned was the midnight training bout between Carrell and Tatum.
Miller: That kind of stuff really happened, though, so I think that’s how it expresses itself. But it never is quite admitted that that’s what happening there.
Henderson: It would be a politically tricky parallel to draw, I imagine, to insinuate a connection between du Pont’s sexuality and his violent act.
Miller: I would have no problem depicting it if that’s what happened. But I think what happened is what we showed happened. The bigger issue is thematically you have a character who is fundamentally incapable of admitting and accepting who he is, and he himself living in the shadow of his ancestors, and trying to live up to some inherited role against the truth of his inadequacy. Perhaps, the truth of his sexuality. … Mark was susceptible to that, but I think that each saw the other as an answer, that somehow they would validate each other.
Henderson: So, how mind-blowing to win at Cannes? [Long pause.] I mean, you beat Godard!
Miller: Oh, that’s so American of you.
Henderson: And I’m sure Godard would say the same.
Miller: Right. It’s very nice to be regarded by your peers. [Another long pause.] I mean, that’s really what it amounts to. I wouldn’t call it “mind-blowing.” It was more humbling. The overwhelming feelings of gratitude and some kind of debt, you want to live up to people’s hopes for this medium. Which is a very, very difficult thing to work. But, anyway, it felt nice.
Foxcatcher opens this Wednesday at Uptown Theater in Minneapolis.