Two’s company, three’s a crowd in Bennett Miller’s latest powerhouse drama. He demonstrated his masterfully controlled direction in Capote and Moneyball, and now Foxcatcher presents a superb continuation of his technique. It’s a quiet, slow, but always ruthlessly tense and uneasy drama based on an inexplicable true story. If you know nothing about the terrible outcome of this twisted tale before watching, you will very quickly gather from the very first scene that the entire film is building up to something unquestionably sinister.
Steve Carell, in an uncustomarily chilling performance, is John Du Pont – an enigmatic millionaire who takes a special interest in 1984 Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and generously offers to host and mentor the entire American Olympic team at his grand home, Foxcatcher Farm, ready to compete in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Mark stands a chance of winning gold again, but he has forever been stuck in the shadow of his elder brother (also a gold medalist), Dave Schultz, played by Mark Ruffalo. When Du Pont acquires Mark – the more isolated and desperate of the brothers – he assumes that Dave will follow suit and join them at Foxcatcher, but Dave is unwilling to leave his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. Du Pont does not take well to being rebuffed.
And so the stage is set. A complicated triangle ensues. Everybody wants something from the other. Du Pont wants to win a gold medal through the Schultz brothers; Mark wants to topple his brother and succeed at Seoul with Du Pont’s generous funding; and Dave, the most selfless of the three, just wants to take care of his little brother and his family. The seeds of tension are planted straight from the start. Du Pont wrestles for Mark’s loyalty; Mark wrestles for Du Pont’s money; Dave wrestles for his brother’s integrity. There’s a lot of wrestling going on. It’s an absurd arrangement, but it comes together because of one thing and one thing only: Du Pont’s money.
Is this a spoilt rich kid who’s always got what he wanted, or a genuinely impassioned man trying to put his wealth to a good purpose and carve a name for himself outside of his family’s fame? It’s hard to tell. Du Pont is ludicrously frivolous with his wealth at times (we see him strop when a tank he ordered arrives without the correct guns on top), so why should he be taken seriously when he decides on a whim to single-handedly take on the entire USA Olympic wrestling team? The answer is simple. Because he can afford it, and nobody else can afford to question it. There are unspoken allusions to class divide throughout Foxcatcher, and the integral fact of the film is that everything that happens happens because of John Du Pont’s fortune. After we first see Mark at the beginning of the film and the near-destitute state of his life, it’s no surprise to us when he leaps at the opportunity to go to Foxcatcher when Du Pont contacts him on the phone. But Du Pont is using Mark just as much as Mark is using Du Pont. For John, Mark is just a vessel – or, in his own words, an “ape” – through which he can align himself with a great American success. It’s a strangely touching sentiment despite its seemingly random origins.
Wrestling is an unusual sport for Du Pont to take up. He comes from a family of upper-class equestrian competitors, and we never learn exactly where his enthusiasm for the sport has come from. It’s not entirely clear from some rather suggestive scenes as to whether wrestling provides for Du Pont some kind of homoerotic or simply paternal pleasure, but either way he is absorbed by a very masculine obsession. In fact, there are very few women in the entire film. Sexuality is not something ever talked about in Foxcatcher – it’s as if it provides nothing but a distraction from Du Pont’s dream. Dave is the only member of the main trio with a wife and family, and there is no doubt that Du Pont resents his attachment to them. Dave appears to have his life in fine shape altogether, and it’s highly probable Du Pont envies that above all else.
Du Pont emerges at times as something of a Norman Bates figure, hopelessly yearning for the approval of his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave). In one fantastically uncomfortable scene, Du Pont attempts to show off his prowess in the wrestling field in front of his mother, who is always telling him that she believes it to be a “low” sport. As his mother watches silently from her wheelchair, Du Pont plays inspirational coach to his team and even, rather awkwardly, tries to demonstrate some moves for himself. When he looks up, his mother is gone.
Is that what this is all about then? Is Du Pont’s entire grand gesture of committing himself to the Olympic team just one big scheme to prove himself to his judgemental mother? It never feels right to sympathise with Du Pont, but Miller seems to try every now and again to make us understand where his final impulsive act comes from. It’s a tricky balancing act for Miller because there can of course be no justification for what Du Pont does, but at the same time we crave some kind of explanation. If it has to be said, the one major pothole of the film – into which it seems to frequently stumble – is that we never really get a rational reason for Du Pont’s terrible crime. But, then again, perhaps we don’t need to. It’s far from a rational act, to say the least. Perhaps Miller doesn’t see it worth cracking into the deranged mind of John Du Pont because there really is no deep psychological trauma – there really is no profound mental inhibition – this is a man who acts entirely of his own irrational accord, and there is no way to justify his actions, no matter how far we delve into his subconscious.
It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the sheer acting talent on display in this film. Steve Carell is, quite possibly, in the process of changing his entire career. It’s not that we hadn’t seen him tackle dramatic roles before (Little Miss Sunshine comes to mind), but it is a shock to see him plunge so deeply into this character. Once you’ve got past the obtrusive prosthetic nose, it isn’t hard to appreciate Carell’s introverted and harrowing brilliance. In Du Pont, the actor has found a role he can really sink his teeth into and it’s almost a moment of pride to see him rise to the challenge. Before long, you find yourself covering up the goosebumps he sends down your arms. Undeniably, Channing Tatum is also re-shaping his Hollywood image. After Magic Mike, he’s proven that there’s more than meets the eye, but Foxcatcher has taken him wildly out of his comfort zone, to astonishingly impressive results. Tatum’s Mark is brutish and insecure. In one scene, we see Tatum completely and utterly inhabiting Mark’s downtrodden frustration as he smashes his head into a mirror repeatedly. The final segment of the trio, however, who must by no means by exempt from praise, is Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz. Ruffalo is quite revelatory in a tenderly sincere portrayal of a big brother looking out for his little brother. He is understated and fiercely protective of his family, which makes the final scenes all the more excruciatingly heart wrenching. There is sure to be an Oscar nomination coming Ruffalo’s way in the Supporting Actor category.
This is not so much a sports movie as a gritty drama concerning sport, rather like Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby, but the idea of wrestling serves as a suitable metaphor for what’s really going on here. Du Pont and Mark Schultz are both out for themselves – they are in the game to win, and they’re not afraid to take each other down to gain that coveted gold. Dave Schultz dares to show some form of altruism and go head-to-head with Du Pont in looking out for his little brother, and his fate ends in tragedy. Miller has created a disturbingly bleak picture of modern America.