In the films of Bennett Miller, the truth is in the silence. The indelible image of Capote is of Philip Seymour Hoffman sitting forward in his seat, listening and trying to comprehend the mind of a murderer. In Moneyball, it’s the silence around the scouting table when Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) proposes a new paradigm in building a baseball team. Some critics see this as a weakness; they write about the coldness of Miller’s films, and how he keeps the audience at arm’s length. Foxcatcher, Miller’s latest and greatest film, should serve as his rebuke. It’s his quietest film yet, and it shows why the silence matters. It is a tragedy about people who never learned to communicate their needs, and in the end can only use violence to express themselves.
The true story on which Foxcatcher is based is sparse and filled with its own silences. Here is what we know: at some point in the 1990s, noted philanthropist John du Pont became interested in wrestling and decided to sponsor and coach the U.S. amateur team. He built a training facility at his estate – Foxcatcher Farm – and invited members of the team to live and practice there. Then in 1996, he shot and killed Dave Schultz, a member of that team. Du Pont was convicted and died in prison 14 years later, all without a clear motive ever being established.
From the known facts of the case, Miller takes a series of bold, thematic leaps to frame du Pont’s actions as a dark and furious critique of the twisted American soul. Instead of identifying a single cause for the murder, he paints a compelling mosaic of untreated psychoses, unspoken desires, and the deadly ways they intersect.
Du Pont’s decision to coach the wrestling team is absurd on its face (he has no experience with the sport), but Miller pegs his dual psychological motivations: he needs to prove himself to his cold, judgmental mother (Vanessa Redgrave), and he wants to get closer to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a young, handsome wrestler who caught his eye. Although the film is awash in homosexual subtext, du Pont’s relationship to Mark is not quite romantic, and not explicitly sexual. In fact, Carell’s grotesque creation seems incapable of such basic human functions. At times, he evokes Frankenstein’s monster in both his urgent desire for friendship and his tragic inability to emotionally connect.
Still, the dysfunctional relationship between du Pont and Mark works well enough. Mark needs a father figure (his parents split when he was two), and du Pont needs a friend. It’s only when Dave, Mark’s protective older brother, arrives at the estate to join the team that things go awry. A platonic love triangle emerges, and with all three characters unable or unwilling to directly speak their feelings, tension builds and builds until it erupts in loud, startling bursts of violence.
It is a stellar cast, and Miller relies heavily on them to communicate the characters’ complex inner emotional lives without words. Carell deserves the awards he will surely win for his egoless performance, but it is his emotional transformation, not just the physical one, that really compels. Casting a comedian to play a killer is not a new idea (see Robin Williams in Insomnia), but Carell in particular is a perfect fit, tapping into the same desperation and entitlement that he spun so well into comedy as Michael Scott. The scene in which he trains Mark on how to introduce him at a public speaking event – while snorting cocaine in a helicopter – walks the razor-sharp line between hilarious and terrifying.
While Carell gets the showiest role, Tatum and Ruffalo provide crucial support. Ruffalo undergoes a physical transformation of his own to play the hulking, tender older brother, while Tatum gives the film its still, vulnerable heart. As an actor, Tatum is often disparaged for being just a hunk, but his ability to express character with his body is often overlooked. Watch the way he walks in Foxcatcher, and you’ll know everything about Mark Schultz.
With this talented cast of actors and small, insular story, Foxcatcher could have been an efficient but minor character study, but what elevates it is Miller’s political framing. From du Pont’s description of the revolutionary war battle that took place on his estate to the chants of “U-S-A” that close the film, Miller asks us to consider how the personal tragedies of du Pont and Schultz reflects our larger, national ones. We can read Foxcatcher as a cautionary tale about people who value competition too much. But Miller’s restraint keeps these themes from overwhelming. Again, the silence is key. Foxcatcher may keep you at arm’s length, but it’s only so you can see the whole picture.