Enervated to the point of somnolence, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher squanders inherently intriguing material—the murder of Olympic gold medalist David Schultz by eccentric scion John E. du Pont—by sapping it of any dramatic or satiric potential in favor of a smothering mood of muted solemnity. And I do mean muted: Miller favors repeated sequences where the diegetic sound dips to the threshold of audibility so that composer Mychael Danna (the same culprit behind The Captive’s bombastic score) has free reign to do his best Arvo Part impersonation. What we’re left with is a sluggish, molasses-y storyline showcasing two solid actors (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum as brothers Dave and Mark Schultz), and Steve Carell, hiding behind a Mr. Burns-esque prosthetic nose and the beady, carrion-eager eyes of a peregrine falcon, doing what amounts to a feature-length SNL impression. Vanessa Redgrave turns up briefly, just long enough to advise John as to the terribly “low” nature of his preferred sport and then to glower disapprovingly at the grappling combatants.
A director other than Miller, whose nose for Oscar bait is every bit as predatory as some of ornithologist du Pont’s glass-enclosed specimens, might have decided (sensibly enough) to play to Carell’s strengths and fashion the material into a dark comedy. In an alternate universe wherein the cinema gods aren’t crazy, Steven Soderbergh might have turned this into a curdled companion piece to his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra. Instead, we’re treated to the Miller method: numerous long-shots of characters sitting alone in their rooms like insects trapped in amber, brooding about the terrible intensity of it all, and even more portentous close-ups of du Pont and his thousand-yard-stare glaring out a window, seemingly registering absolutely nothing at all. Once in a while, almost as though by accident, a character will do or say something remotely amusing, which, without fail, will be Miller’s cue to bring the sound down and slather on some more Danna from heaven.
As a consequence of Miller’s relentless de-dramatization, Foxcatcher offers us next to nothing of utility or complexity about du Pont’s pathology, beyond a mother fixation that would make Norman Bates blush and a high-caliber fascination with firearms, which, after all, is how the du Pont clan first acquired their filthy lucre, as the VHS tape du Pont encourages Mark to watch so brazenly trumpets. Ruffalo does well by his undercooked role of doomed Dave Schultz, adding layer and nuance to this salt-of-the-earth type, whose essential goodness and decency is indicated by his receding hairline. Meanwhile, the younger brother played by Tatum is marked out by his shambling gait and penchant for self-harm. An assemblage of tics do not a character make. Because it rather complacently settles for caricature without comedy, intrigue without any insight, Foxcatcher will invariably invite a certain amount of speculation that the filmmakers should have let this one get away.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.