FOXCATCHER: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, directed by Bennett Miller (130 min.)
The introduction of John du Pont might make him seem like an eccentric Bond villain. At least it did to me. He lives in a mansion near historic battlegrounds in Pennsylvania, on hundreds of acres with prize-winning horses, his aging mother, and a collection of military equipment he purchases because he is a self-proclaimed “patriot.” He travels primarily via helicopter, and is the only son of America’s wealthiest family. However, John du Pont was a real man, and his story in Foxcatcher is a true story, which rids the film of any satire or fun that might come along with a Bond villain. Instead, Foxcatcher is permeated with uneasiness and discomfort, which hums below the surface of the events like the buzz of a broken stereo speaker. I was uncomfortable from the very beginning, and grew even more so as the film unfolded. It was undoubtedly the desired effect.
It is a story so bizarre and disturbing it could only be true. While du Pont eventually becomes the focal point of the film, we begin with the story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler who won Gold in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. His brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) also won gold, but the trajectories of these brothers could not be more opposing. Where Mark is alone, introverted, lost, Dave is an outgoing personality with a wife and children who has become a wonderful wrestling coach. Mark has very little in his life; Dave has everything he needs.
Mark gets a phone call from Jack, a spokesman for John du Pont played by Anthony Michael Hall. Jack invites Mark to du Pont’s estate, Foxcatcher Farms, where we finally meet this strange and ultimately pitiful man. Steve Carell disappears into the role of John du Pont with short graying hair, a hawkish nose, and poor teeth. Du Pont wants Mark to lead a team of wrestlers who will compete in the World championships and the ’88 Olympics. He pays Mark a considerable amount of money to move to the du Pont estate and train on site with a team. Mark, who sees this as an opportunity to get out of his brother’s shadow, jumps at the chance.
Things are clearly not what they seem early on at the du Pont estate. John du Pont has no athletic ability and no knowledge of wrestling whatsoever; he simply wants to be given credit for assembling a championship wrestling team. He lives in crippling, emasculating psychological fear of his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who sees no value in wrestling. Before long, du Pont seems to lose real interest in being a coach as he gets Mark hooked on drugs. The story takes a strange and disturbing turn once Mark becomes a sort of servant to John, dying his hair blond and cutting John’s hair. The late-night “practice sessions” are equally as unsettling. There is a hint of sexual attraction, even obsession, on John’s end, though that is not ever truly explored.
Eventually, John throws enough money at Dave to get him to move his family out to Foxcatcher Farms and train the team. Dave immediately notices something is amiss, but tries to make the best of it because he is a good person and he is worried about his less-intelligent brother. Pay attention to the way Mark and Dave carry their bodies, a great indicator of their personalities. Mark plods along heavily like a gorilla, and Dave floats and bounces, his ankles and wrists turned in slightly to give him a childlike, generous posture.
As the story progresses, Mark becomes more withdrawn and less concerned with wrestling. Du Pont is destroying him systematically, and Dave steps in. Director Bennett Miller never intensifies the tension, because the subtleties in the three brilliant performances make all the tension arrive easily, and at the right moments, without enhancement.
Much has been made of Carell’s performance, as it should be. Carell creates an aura of discomfort and unease with his performance, showing what John du Pont is thinking without saying a thing. But let’s not get away from the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo as Mark and Dave. This is Channing Tatum’s best work to date, and Ruffalo is equally as compelling as Dave. I fully expect Carell to grab an Oscar nomination for his work and be the favorite going in, but I also hope Tatum is noticed for his supporting work. And while there may not be room for Ruffalo, in a perfect world he would get a supporting nod as well.
There is a murder, and du Pont is arrested and sent to prison where he died in 2010. As far as acting is concerned, Foxcatcher hits all the right notes with a trio of brilliant performances. But as an overall film, I’m not sure Foxcatcher completely works. Certain scenes end before they should, and Miller’s direction sometimes suffocates. The final scene doesn’t work at all for me, it feels tacked on and unnecessary. I’m not sure we needed a follow up to the character as his exit from the film was fitting in an earlier moment.
Foxcatcher is a thriller so strange it can only be true. It is an exercise in disturbing drama that effectively made my palms sweat throughout, despite the fact that the structural suffocation might hold the film back from being something great. See this film to celebrate these three great performances, but don’t expect to be feeling good walking out of the theater.