“Foxcatcher” is a brooding, particularly American horror story of seduction, rejection, betrayal and murder set in the under-the-radar world of Olympic wrestling. A despairing, intentionally disturbing film that draws us into a maelstrom of desperate emotions, it holds up a dark mirror to the American dream and does not like what it sees.
Based on the true story of vastly wealthy John Eleuthère du Pont and his quixotic financial sponsorship of U.S. wrestling in general and the gold medalist brothers Mark and Dave Schultz in particular, “Foxcatcher” is the latest work by director Bennett Miller, responsible for “Capote” and “Moneyball.” In many ways it’s his best yet.
A project so complex and nervy that it took eight years to get made, “Foxcatcher” got financed only because of the passion of Megan Ellison and her Annapurna Pictures, responsible as well for the likes of “American Hustle,” “Her” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
The film is blessed by the extraordinary work of three actors — Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo — who lose themselves so completely in their parts they border on unrecognizable.
Getting the most attention is the normally comic Carell, who, with the aid of a Cyrano nose and an altered bearing, completely turns the tables on audience expectations as the eccentric John E. du Pont, a quiet, almost diffident man, unnerving in ways that are difficult to pinpoint, someone who has more money than he knows what to do with. A lot more.
However, both Tatum and Ruffalo also undergo significant transformations to play brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, bulking up and changing both body types and the way they habitually present themselves on screen, so much so that seeing their names on the closing credits is something of a shock even if you know they’re in the film.
It is somehow fitting that these three men would be brought together by Olympic freestyle wrestling, an unforgiving sport with demands and pressures that are as much psychological as physical, a naked sport that forces intimacy on its participants but finally leaves them with absolutely nowhere to hide.
As written by E. Max Frye and “Capote” writer Dan Futterman, who’ve artfully condensed as well as emotionally heightened the real story, “Foxcatcher” begins in 1987 with Mark working out in a college gym, practicing takedowns on a dummy with a sullen, glowering ferocity that makes him look frightening as well as somehow vulnerable.
Mark (whose memoir, also called “Foxcatcher,” has just been published) may have won an Olympic gold medal three years earlier, but he does not look happy as he grinds it out in preparation for the forthcoming world championships.
Another largely wordless scene has Mark working out with his older brother and fellow gold medalist Dave, someone he admires yet seems to resent. The physicality of their interaction couldn’t be more authentic (both Ruffalo and his father before him were accomplished high school wrestlers). Plus the way the actors allow their wrestling moves to reflect their relationship is so intuitively done here that Bennett said at Cannes (where “Foxcatcher” won him the director prize) that it enabled him to cut an entire scene of dialogue.
Mark has the film’s first extended speech, and the talk he gives to a school audience beginning “I want to talk about America” can’t help but echo the celebrated “I believe in America” opening of “The Godfather.” And in fact as “Foxcatcher” unfolds it concerns itself to a considerable extent with quintessentially American issues of wealth, power, class and entitlement, not to mention the baffling complexities of masculine interaction and dependence.
We also get to see Mark’s borderline impoverished lifestyle, so we understand how mind-blowing it is when he gets a call from a Du Pont functionary inviting him to an all-expenses-paid visit to the family’s lavish Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania, capped by a helicopter ride from the airport to the site. This is wealth on a level Mark never imagined existed.
As if he was reading Mark’s mind, Du Pont also wants to talk about America, about patriotism, about a country that “fails to honor” what the wrestler has accomplished. Du Pont shows him a huge, well-appointed wrestling facility he has built, talks about his dream of helping American wrestlers triumph in the world by living and working on site. “We’re going to do great things here, Mark,” he says, and the awestruck athlete answers “Yes, sir.”
Mark hopes the genial, gregarious Dave, who has all the social graces he lacks, will join him at Foxcatcher, but his brother also has a wife (Siena Miller, one of the few women in this intensely male film), two children and commitments. Mark, who has an unacknowledged need to separate from Dave, will have to go on his own. For now.
The situation seems to be too good to be true, and complications soon arise. Some of them stem from Du Pont’s deep desire to please his distant, forbidding mother, Jean (an icy Vanessa Redgrave), and some from this awkward individual’s need to see himself as a mentor and leader of men. In truth, both he and Mark envy Dave’s easy camaraderie with other men, and that fixation ends up having the most terrible results.
Though it never pushes an agenda, “Foxcatcher” is at its most acute in its insights into what we value in America, the deference our nominally egalitarian society pays to inherited wealth and power, how we allow ourselves to slide unawares into the most awful situations. The hardest things it tells us about ourselves may be the things we need to hear most of all.