“Foxcatcher” is anything but a wrestling drama. Although based on the true story of Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz and his brief years of training under multi-millionaire John du Pont, “Foxcatcher” expands well beyond the wrestling ring into the minds of two men longing to find greatness.
So those expecting anything close to director Bennett Miller’s last film, “Moneyball,” should be forewarned. This is not a sports movie, but a slow-burning character study (like Miller’s first acclaimed film, “Capote”) in which the wrestling serves as the visual, physical expression of the psychological struggle between the characters.
When we first meet Mark, played by Channing Tatum, whose versatility continues to amaze, it’s 1987 and he is living in the faded glory of his 1984 gold medal. Despite his success, he is living a rather lonely life and itching to accomplish more; his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also won gold and Dave feels that leaves him with something to prove. So when John du Pont (Steve Carell) contacts him about paying him to come train at his top-notch facility on his family’s estate, Foxcatcher Farm, he sees his opportunity.
Mark and du Pont’s philosophies about striving to be the best align, and the two form a close, almost father-and-son bond, though more so because they both feel pressure to live up to others’ expectations. Du Pont, in particular, wants to prove himself to his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who breeds world class horses and finds wrestling barbaric. John’s desperation, bottomless checkbook and unresolved family issues make for a dangerous combination, and his relationship with Mark slowly begins to change for the worse. Further complicating the matter is Dave, the only man capable of saving Mark from his demanding expectations of himself and whose coaching expertise intimidates du Pont.
The often unspoken psychological warfare between the three (and, perhaps most importantly, du Pont and his mother) is the driving force of the story more than anything that actually happens on screen. Mark’s ups and downs as he competes at the ’87 World Championships and ’88 Olympic trials are symptomatic of his mental state and the state of his relationship with the other men. As such, “Foxcatcher” is a long, at times brooding film that can drag in spite of the brilliant character development and internal drama.
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script is quiet and doesn’t have a lot of big juicy moments for its actors to lean on, so the fact that Carell is totally haunting and captivating in this role says a lot. Du Pont is an incredibly complex character whose back story is mostly implied so as to keep him as unpredictable as possible. Even with all the makeup on, Carell gives the epitome of an understated performance, something you would never dream possible from a guy who has made a career out of big acting and abrasive characters. Undoubtedly some credit goes to Miller, who has churned out acting nominations and wins for his previous casts, and gets Carell and Tatum to pause and linger at all the right moments.
With those two in transforming roles, it’s easy to overlook Ruffalo (who always seems to get overlooked). Dave is the comparison point for both these men. He’s a family man who is smart, has accomplished a lot and knows what it truly means to work hard. Ruffalo brings his trademark authenticity to his part as the “good guy” and does it so well.
Even when it’s too quiet and languishes, “Foxcatcher” is a fine piece of cinema and Miller has established himself as a true auteur. It certainly does not satisfy in the mainstream sense, but its purposeful use of imagery, total avoidance of melodrama and magnifying glass on the human condition make it an undeniably sharp and intelligent art film to be sure.
Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo