If there’s one film genre that could be described as “exhausted”, you could make a solid argument for sports movies. It’s the easiest category with which to make a voluminous list of clichés (for starters: team of losers gradually becomes winners; down-on-their-luck coach finds glory again through an unexpected partnership; a player/team’s success reflects positive social changes in their country; even when a team loses, they “win” in some figurative way).
We’ll sometimes get a gem or two that’s able to nonetheless succeed on great writing and other factors (Ron Howard’s Rush and David Russell’s The Fighter spring to mind as some great recent examples). What’s more interesting, however, is when a filmmaker completely eschews audience expectation of a celebratory tone toward sports, and dares to suggest that sports can actually be useless, or even detrimental to someone under certain circumstances. And that is why I found this year’s Foxcatcher to be an absolute godsend of a sports movie.
In some respects, I think of it as a three-act tragedy, with each act focusing on one of the three main characters in this eerie true story: Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum); his older brother, and fellow star wrestler, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo); and their aloof financial supporter John Eleuthere du Pont (Steve Carell). For these individuals, their long commitment to wrestling plays a pivotal role in the ultimate destruction of family and friendship.
First, we have Mark. Tatum’s fantastic physical performance demonstrates an ever-present, sulking rage within Schultz. As is communicated in the very beginning of the movie, this is a man who’s already won gold for his country – hitting a professional peak in his early 20s – and yet has little to show for it financially within only a couple years of his triumph. Schultz declares that he wants to be the best in the world, which would mean another gold in the ’88 games, and also a world championship beforehand, but it’s easy to think that even if Schultz accomplished all this, he’d still be insecure and seething. As he trains and competes, Schultz becomes outright abusive towards himself. The sight after an early defeat in one of the Olympic qualifying matches is jarring in the best possible sense: Schultz proceeds to smack himself harder and harder, and finally shatters a hotel room mirror with his forehead. The scene becomes more remarkably surreal as Dave finds him, and cradles his younger brother’s bleeding head. Mark is also pushed by an uninformed sense of patriotic duty to his country. He takes America as a great country just because, and he sees his wrestling ability as a way to help tout this to the rest of the world.
Opposite him is du Pont, a sheltered, privileged, and mentally ill man. Carell carries all of these qualities in what is surely his best acting performance since the indie darling Little Miss Sunshine. At first, he conducts himself with wealth’s manners; his entrance in the film is perfectly casual and polite. However, as time wears on, there is a detachment in his whole being, except for the pierce of his eyes. Du Pont wants to demonstrate his worth to his elderly mother, and he views a crew of young wrestlers as the pawns with which to do it. As with the younger Schultz, he also ties in wrestling to a sort of patriotic duty. When the two work together to accomplish their dreams, the result is disheartening at the very least. In one shot, as du Pont looks out over his family’s expansive property, Mark sits on the porch, shaken up by the coke habit du Pont has introduced him to.
Of these three characters, Dave has perhaps gained the most from his time with the sport, which makes the final outcome all the more heartbreaking. He too won Olympic gold, but he has now committed himself to coaching and his young family. In his free time, he genuinely works to stay in touch with his brother through Mark’s Olympic training. Ironically, it’s in the nature of the sport itself that ultimately limits his connection with his brother. Early on in the film, Dave and Mark take part in their daily practice routine on the mat. Dave’s clearly pushing Mark to make better and better moves. Finally, something gives, and Mark strikes his brother with enough force to cause a nosebleed. The sport is what also inexorably bonds Dave to du Pont in a toxic, imbalanced relationship.
Throughout, the action is accompanied by beautiful cinematography and haunting music. The extensive shots of the du Pont estate, the surrounding woods, and Mark’s worn-down home give a façade of mundane peace. Underneath, the music hints at what’s to come. Even when characters have their moments of triumph, there is little reinforcement of these victories in the score. Instead, there is an almost hypnotic sense of dread – without hitting in-your-face “Mad World” levels of morbidity.
Perhaps Foxcatcher, for which Bennett Miller has received a Best Director nomination at the Oscars, will not only push more directors to tackle sports in a darker, more realistic manner, but also encourage others to find new approaches to the uplifting stories we’ve grown so tired of seeing on the big screen.