“Embrace the grind” – someone, once upon a time talking about wrestling
I never wrestled. I am a lapsed jiu-jitsu white belt though. Jiu-jitsu was tough, way too tough for me both mentally and physically. Wrestling wears you down and not a whole lot of people can hack that. This is what wrestlers refer to as the grind, and being able to embrace it as the quote above suggests, is a badge of honour.
Foxcatcher (2014), well half of it, is about the grind. The first half of the film very much embodies the notion, embracing and reflecting the psychological and physical approach that wrestlers are so fond of talking about. Mark Schultz, played with a depth many didn’t think he had by Channing Tatum, is a superstar wrester. An Olympic champion. But even wrestlers at the pinnacle of their sport, embrace a working class aesthetic. Part of this is financial reality. The sport pays next to nothing, and like so many Olympic sports, is only in the broader public consciousness once every 4 years. But it’s also the sweaty, physically brutal aspect of the grind. Tatum has that raw physicality of a developing athlete and is able to embody, both in looks and performance, that pure athleticism.
Watching the film at times feels like a physical experience. So much of the brotherly relationship between the characters played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum is conveyed through physical contact, the way they warm up and grapple. The working class aesthetic of wrestling as well is captured by this physical approach to the film. Part of that is the fact we more or less see the events of the film from the perspective of Tatum’s Shultz who as a character encapsulates the arc of an athlete. All he ever really known is that athletic path of grind and ups and downs. He knows nothing else, so that is the only real way that he can express himself and engage with those around him.
The second half of the film is more a psychological thriller, or to be more precise a psychological portrait of Steve Carrell’s John Du Pont. His deep-seated creepiness and mommy issues are explored and played out, without ever resorting to an over the top expository approach. The reaction of Du Pont to these failings is an insatiable desire to be considered a ‘great’, physical and masculine presence. So he surrounds himself with the Shultz brothers who are that above all. His attempts to mirror their impact on the world around them are comical, but they also make Foxcatcher an exceptionally dark journey. It is so disconcerting to witness sequences of the frail DuPont trying to coach wrestling. Aching to fit in and impress despite his clear mental and physical limitations. It is here that the two aspects of the film seep into one another. DuPont sees the grind and physical contact of wrestling as a way to deal with or play out his psychological foibles.
It is in the early stages of the film’s second part that it is weakest. Tatum’s Mark Schultz abruptly transforms from a driven, world class athlete, to a drunk and drug addled bum, exaggeratedly tending to DuPont. The distinctive, overt depiction of the homoeroticism of the relationship between Mark Schultz and DuPont strongly recalls Behind the Candelabra (2013). It is hard not to feel this complexity between the two men could not have been depicted in a more muted and dark manner, which would have been more in keeping with the rest of the film stylistically.
Much has been made of the performances in Foxcatcher, and with good reason. However if anything, Steve Carrel’s turn is the least impressive. It’s still a great performance, and he manages to overcome the shock of his physical appearance and truly inhabit the role dramatically, to a really high level, much more so in my opinion than Eddie Redmayne managed in The Theory of Everything (2014). The hook nose and off-putting voice never distract from the character and the psychological force that he brings to the film. I changed my mind repeatedly through the film as to which of the three leads delivered the standout performance. It has to be Tatum though. He takes a character that could have almost been a simpleton and makes it something exceptionally complex. Mark Ruffalo is equally as good as both of them, in a role without the focus of the other two, but who is in a large part responsible and a part of basically all that happens in the film.
Verdict: Foxcatcher is essentially a film about masculinity. That is a description that would generally turn me right off a film, but here with the astute direction of Bennett Miller and three exceptional performances, there is a cutting incisiveness to that notion, filtered equally through athletic pursuit and psychological descent. It’s at times a brutal and slow thematic exploration, but it is a film that will creep up on you with its quiet brilliance and uniqueness. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter