Director Bennett Miller's latest feature is another true-life story, following on from the Oscar-winning Capote and the baseball drama Moneyball by tackling the events surrounding American millionaire John du Pont and his dream of creating a world-class USA wrestling team. In the film, which is set in the mid 1980's, du Pont enlists the help of Olympic wrestling champions (and brothers) Mark and David Schultz in order to establish his 'Team Foxcatcher' stable of athletes, so named after the du Pont family farm. First he ensnares the younger, more naive Mark, and David - seen as the more successful of the two - is reluctant to join, but as Mark succumbs to the trappings of victory he realises he needs his brother more than ever, driving a wedge between him and his wealthy benefactor which would have shocking consequences for all those involved.
As with any adaptation of actual incidents, Foxcatcher greatly compresses the time frame of events, merging or fabricating certain happenings and creating characters out of thin air to better facilitate the telling of the story, yet it's more of a character piece than an historical document, thanks largely in part to the terrific performances. Steve Carell garnered plenty of award-season buzz for his portrayal of du Pont, the comedian unrecognisable under a layer of prosthetics, and he perfectly captured the tics and mannerisms of his socially awkward subject. The huge nose lends an almost avian air to his appearance, making his beady eyes seem sunken into his head and giving him a dispassionate bird-like gaze that belies the unhinged mind underneath.
For all of the deserved praise for Carell's creepy turn, it's Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz who's really at the heart of the story and he is exceptional. He's been given his own prosthetic make-up to better realise the misshapen features which are all too typical of a wrestler's face, including a flat nose and cauliflower ears, accompanied by a pronounced underbite and a hulking neanderthal gait, all of which is a world away from the chiselled pretty-boy roles that he's famed for. Tatum's Mark is an intense, brooding, lonely figure who's fed up living in his big brother's shadow and he constantly upbraids himself for it. By contrast Mark Ruffalo's performance as David Schultz has a paternal warmth to it, not just towards his own kids but towards his simple-minded sibling whom he practically raised, and it's clear that the two characters have a very special bond (in spite of Mark's feelings of jealousy) which not even du Pont seems able to break. Sienna Miller gets a very small role as Nancy Schultz, Dave's wife.
The script is keen to highlight the similarities between Schultz the younger and du Pont. Both men lack fulfilment in their personal lives, with no partner to speak of and each having parents who divorced which left them without a father figure; both men are eager to make their own mark on their family's legacy while the achievements of their kin loom over them (for Mark it's his brother, for du Pont it's his parent's skill with the equestrian arts); both men are dyed-in-the-wool patriots who want to serve their country as best as they can. In each other they see a kindred spirit from the opposite side of the tracks, someone with the same goals and ideals, but while du Pont's wealth affords him the opportunity to indulge his eccentricities (especially his love for military hardware) Mark has to scratch around for a living, which is what makes du Pont's overtures so very enticing.
The film maintains that theme of reflection throughout, with mirrors forming a big part of the visual aesthetic and contributing some of the most intense scenes in the film as Mark scrutinises himself and doesn't like what he sees, eventually going so far as to smash a mirror in a fit of frustrated rage which is an important moment symbolically (and is an example of how deep into the role Tatum had sunk because smashing the mirror was not in the script, and he genuinely cut himself in the process). There's also a strong sense being observed from afar, like when Mark arrives at du Pont's sprawl, as his car is framed by a watchful statue in the foreground and is then witnessed through the slight distortion of a window pane, with long lenses frequently employed to put a sensation of distance into the photography throughout the movie. Once we get inside the mansion the ghosts of history peer down from every wall (even in the bathroom), with the myriad paintings, stuffed animals, ribbons and trophies fuelling du Pont's deep-seated feelings of inadequacy compared to his parents' achievements, and we also have to contend with looking down the peering lens of a video camera as du Pont insisted on documenting his exploits.
Foxcatcher succeeds at building up a feeling of tension and unease over its 134-minute running time, although I felt it could've done with just a touch more connective tissue here and there, like learning what made David change his mind about joining Team Foxcatcher. Perhaps Miller was wary of allowing the latent aura of anxiety to dissipate if he dragged the movie out for too long, but this makes the narrative feel slightly disjointed at times. I mentioned at the top about how the movie works in spite of the usual bending of the truth that occurs with biopics, yet the denouement stands out as being particularly manipulative and takes a little bit of the shine off (essentially it paints the climax as being a direct result of du Pont and David competing for Mark's soul, whereas what eventually happened took place many years after Mark left Team Foxcatcher). However, it's still an utterly engrossing tale of how one man's obsession led to tragedy.
This DVD - supplied in lieu of a Blu-ray screener - is a PAL Region 2 disc (running at 128 minutes due to the 4% PAL speed up) and starts with trailers for Mr Holmes, Danny Collins and Lost River.
Foxcatcher was shot Super 35 and finished on a 2K DI, the results of which are immediately obvious even on this DVD as the 1.85 image is exceedingly stable and there's no dirt or scratches to speak of. The black levels are very thin which robs the picture of contrast, making it look extremely flat and dull. Colour is very muted also but that's probably by design, with desaturated, autumnal hues. Detail levels are quite good and aren't marred by edge enhancement, although it's hampered by some poor downscaling from the 2K master, with jaggies plainly visible on areas of slanted vertical detail. (Unfortunately this seems to be a fairly common trait on newly-released DVDs.) There's a delicate layer of grain - or as near to grain as DVD can reproduce - which the compression deals with adequately, and I was very surprised at the lack of banding.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is perfunctory, serving the movie with adequate dialogue reproduction and very little by way of rear or LFE activity. The sparse piano-driven score comes through well enough.
Extras are limited to a 15-minute Story of Foxcatcher featurette and 5 minutes' worth of deleted scenes. The featurette contains soundbites from Carell, Tatum, Ruffalo, Miller (actor) and Miller (director) interspersed with what looks like 16mm behind-the-scenes footage showing everyone goofing off. It's not some incisive exposé but you get a good overview of what attracted the relevant parties to the project, what it was like making it and what the real Nancy Schultz thought of it. The deleted scenes are of little value, one scene showing David fending off the concerns of other wrestling coaches and another showing du Pont driving his newly-acquired armoured personnel carrier into a lake. (Apparently that really happened and it wasn't even the full extent of his peculiarities, as it's been reported that he had his wrestling team go looking for ghosts and other such things, but if they'd made du Pont that crazy in the film it wouldn't have worked nearly as well. Toning that aspect down slightly was the right call.)
Foxcatcher is an intense character study filled with superb performances, and although this UK DVD doesn't quite do it justice - the disc offers middling AV quality and a paltry selection of extra features - the quality of the film itself shines through.
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
6 out of 10
4 out of 10