Does extreme privilege point, like an arrow, to a sort of rot within the true-blue American spirit? Putting criminal insanity aside for a moment, the answer’s a qualified, sorrowful yes in director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, a true-crime drama hailed in many quarters as a modern classic since it debuted six months ago at the Cannes Film Festival.
There are times when director Miller can’t seem to fight his way out from under it. But the filmmaker’s struggle—largely, it appears, in the editing phase—to give shape to this story makes for a compelling riddle with a clear narrative answer but plenty of unanswered ancillary questions.
The facts are pretty rich. In 1996, on the grounds of his sprawling Foxcatcher Farm estate in Pennsylvania, wrestling enthusiast and chemical company heir John du Pont shot and killed Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz. Schultz’s brother, Mark, also spent time living on the du Pont estate and was the first of the brothers to enter the rarefied orbit of their cryptic, increasingly threatening benefactor.
Foxcatcher strips down the real-life events for parts and goes its own way, as all movies must, turning the story into a study of aspirations, goals and the competitive spirit, and how the wealthiest convicted murderer in U.S. history came to be exactly that.
Photographed in ashen tones, Foxcatcher makes much of du Pont’s interest in American history, his proximity to Valley Forge and his belief that a triumphant U.S. Olympic wrestling team is his way to reclaim his country’s greatness. Early in the film, a portrait of George Washington is seen on the drab apartment wall of Mark Schultz. Clearly these two, du Pont and Schultz, the rich man and the relatively poor man, are spiritually fated to be mated.
When we first see Channing Tatum’s Mark, he’s speaking before a few dozen grade school students on the subject of his Olympic wrestling accomplishments. He gets $20 for the gig. Life is small and blinkered. When the call comes from Foxcatcher to set up a meeting about du Pont’s lavish training facility, it’s fate, messing with Mark for what appears to be the better.
Steve Carell portrays du Pont, and it’s a canny performance, a cinch come Oscar nomination time. “I want to see this country soar again,” he says quietly, almost diffidently, to Mark. Working with a prosthetic nose, yellow teeth and a backward-tilted head suggesting an unbalancing sense of wealth, Carell does little to tip his interpretive hand in these initial sequences.
In contrast to Carell and Tatum, Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz plays the script’s one truly happy man, happy in his family life (Sienna Miller portrays his wife, Nancy), content in his coaching, protective of his tense, socially phobic brother.
In du Pont, Mark finds the apparently benevolent father figure he never had. In Mark, du Pont finds a malleable conduit for his dream of wrestling glory.
The film acknowledges a certain, tactful degree of du Pont’s drug use, his personality disorders and bizarre behavior, all documented. Plenty more is elided or left out, especially to do with du Pont’s sexually predatory nature.
Director Miller is a wizard at establishing mood and interpersonal communication nonverbally. He doesn’t rush things. When Tatum and Ruffalo wrestle early in Foxcatcher, the brotherly relationship is established entirely through the way these guys use their bodies.
The racist, crotch-groping, gun-crazy du Pont is boiled down to a vaguely sinister specimen waving a select handful of red flags. Miller favors calm long-distance shots at key junctures, so that the behavior on view—du Pont whacking a clipboard out of a subordinate’s hand, for example, or being tackled by police after the worst has happened—appears to be the doings of a rare species of bird, captured through field glasses.
At its core, Foxcatcher grapples with the subjects of class and money, and what some people do when, to quote a line from Psycho, they can’t buy off their own unhappiness.
Foxcatcher (R): ★★★✩✩