Foxcatcher September 10, 2015
Foxcatcher is a true-crime story that feels less like a true-crime story and more like a shifty-eyed character study that just so happens to climax with a crime. The crime is murder, and the murder, by now, is so famous that most don’t consider the killing of wrestler Dave Schultz as much of a spoiler in the small scope of a review. The heinous act is what gives Foxcatcher its drive, but it hardly dwells on it. It’s an explosion of recklessness following a long period of uncomfortable, possibly dangerous, silence. Though we know the murder is coming, it feels more like a subtle threat than a surefire future event. Even John du Pont, the culprit, seems to be out of it as he carries death in the palm of his hands.
As the film opens, the Schultz brothers, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo), are hardly the champions they once were. Years previously, they were dual Olympic gold medal winners, but Mark, being the less charismatic of the two, has drifted into a life of quiet loneliness, while Dave, by comparison, has dedicated his life to his kids and his marriage. So when billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) offers Mark a position on his Pennsylvania based wrestling syndicate, Team Foxcatcher, Mark, without his brother, accepts the proposal and embarks on a new chapter in his life.
But du Pont is hardly fit to take on the role of a wrestling coach — damaged by his depressing lack of a social life and lavishly expensive (and illegal) hobbies, he, despite helping Mark win a gold medal in 1987, leads his new protege down a trail even more on the brink of collapsing than before. And when Dave eventually decides to move his wife and kids onto du Pont’s massive estate, it pushes the latter to a lethal breaking point.
Foxcatcher moves along with a sort of disquieting static, never interrupted by a score, never choosing to regard any of its characters at a distance close enough to make us understand them. A chill drifts, warning us that something terrible is going to happen. It’s a film with an ominous undertone, close to cracking at any given point. Miller provides the film with a malevolently portentous visual style, stirring and tense, while Frye and Futterman’s understated screenplay doesn’t play close attention to the climactic murder, instead spending the time twisting and knotting the broken ideals of the real life characters and seeing how far they’re willing to go before they see the shiftiness of the situation.
Mark and Dave are appreciative but wary of du Pont; Mark, always the slightly dumb lug who spent the majority of his life following in his brother’s shadow (he raised him), is grateful for du Pont’s generosity but begins to second guess the situation as drugs are offered and the atmosphere grows more tense. Dave, always masked by a nervous smile, views du Pont as a strange but caring figure wanting good for his brother — he’s too distracted by his family to notice that something is off. Tatum gives a career changing performance as the shy soul who, even as an adult, is better off relying on the guidance of others; Ruffalo is enthralling as the protective Dave.
But Foxcatcher wouldn’t be the same sort of creepy American tragedy without Steve Carell, who shatters his normally comedic stature and provides the film with a presence impossible to forget. As John du Pont, he is transformed, makeup giving him beady eyes, a defining nose, and rotten teeth; but Carell, disarmingly accurate in his portrayal, gets under our skin as he stares at the world with a detached melancholy, as he speaks in a monotone that suggests that something is pestering him inside. Scenes reveal that du Pont has lived through a friendless existence (his only pal being a kid his mother paid to play with him), and that he has never seen either one of his parents look at him with approving eyes. Encased in wealth, he has endured a cycle of empty money-can’t-buy-happiness pain. Carell captures du Pont’s eccentricity with force troublingly disconcerting.
In truth, Foxcatcher is a better acting film than it is a film. While Miller’s direction is astute and the characterizations are stupendous, it is too detached, removed from us to startle us the way it wants to. But it is still one of the best of 2014; it deeply unsettles in a way few true crime films can. B