An ominous pall hangs over Foxcatcher, an aura of dread and unnerving quiet that announces right from the start of the film that things are not going to end well. The story of the strange relationship between billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) and Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) has been widely documented in the news media, but for those who come into the movie not knowing what awaits, that discomfiting feeling that permeates the early scenes is not your imagination.
Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman have taken the most subtle, least sensational approach imaginable to material that in other hands might have edged into full-out horror territory. Instead, Foxcatcher opts for silent, creepy insinuation. When we first meet Mark, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, he’s living alone in a shabby apartment, accepting speaking engagements at local grade schools for $20 a pop and practicing for the 1988 games with Dave (Mark Ruffalo), the older brother who raised him and also won a gold medal. In their first scene together, we watch them practice on the mat, helping each other stretch with the sort of tenderness that speaks to their bond and love as siblings.
But once they start to wrestle, their competitive spirit takes over. Mark, who feels abandoned and alone and feels he deserves to be in a better place for having made his country proud on the world stage, silently resents Dave, who is happily married with two children and has been asked by the U.S. Olympic Committee to help coach the wrestling team.
As it was in Capote and Moneyball, one of the themes of Foxcatcher is a man’s yearning for validification and success. Mark longs not only to achieve the American Dream but also to have a deserved moment in the spotlight for his accomplishments. For him, that opportunity comes in the form of du Pont, who flies the college-educated but somewhat naive young man to his massive estate in Pennsylvania and offers him posh living quarters, an annual salary and a position on the wrestling team he is assembling.
Sporting a prosthetic nose, mottled skin and other subtle latex appliances, Carell is hard to recognize at first under the effective makeup. But the actor quickly shows he’s not going to let his mask do the work for him. Countless comedians have tried to cross over into serious drama with mixed results, but Carell’s performance as du Pont is remarkable. He’s a contradictory, volatile, strange man with an unhealthy attachment to his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), and he suffers the boredom of the wealthy who have run out of things to do with their money. He seems to be rotting from the inside, his mind as well as his body.
Coaching a wrestling team gives du Pont something he can call his own other than birdwatching and stamp collecting, even though his aged aristocratic mother disapproves of his new obsession, calling it “a low sport.” But du Pont ignores her and pushes forward. He has the resources to recruit and train the best wrestlers in the country, and their success becomes his success, something he can finally use to overshadow his family’s immense fortune (made from the production of ammunition and chemicals) and their stable of prize-winning horses.
A heavy drinker and cocaine user, du Pont is also missing a screw or five — in one briefly terrifying scene, he walks into the gym where his recruits are training wielding a gun — but he’s also persistent and hard to refuse. Eventually, he convinces David to bring his family to his compound and join the team. But by the time David arrives, Mark has started to learn the truth about du Pont — he uses people like trophies. He corrupts and molds them into whatever image he wants and is interested only in self-glorification. Just as David is starting to fit in with the Foxcatcher crew, Mark begins to pull away, which does not sit well with du Pont. At all.
Shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Let Me In) in subdued, chilly colors, the look of Foxcatcher mirrors the inner sadness and disappointment of its protagonists. Miller doesn’t try to turn the film into a sweeping statement about American disillusionment regardless of one’s social and financial status — this story is too strange and specific to serve as an allegory for anything — but he succeeds at drawing you into the growing strangeness of events taking place on the estate, using them as a way to illustrate the desperate things some people will do to attain their perception of happiness and fulfillment.
Tatum, sporting a wrestler’s thickly muscled body and round face, is as much of an odd bird as du Pont is, a man who has spent the bulk of his life feeling unloved, no matter how much he accomplished. That dissatisfaction initially brings the two men together before separating them, and the consequences are unspeakably tragic. Foxcatcher is too cold of a movie to love, but that chilliness is intentional and transfixing, a parable about the darkest corners of the minds of men that dares to whisper instead of shout.
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd.
Director: Bennett Miller.
Screenwriters: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 134 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Sunset Place, Aventura, South Beach; in Broward: Paradise, Gateway, Palace; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray, Parisian.