Foxcatcher is a smartly paced film that interrogates the anxieties of American masculinity and the desire for power, fame, and glory. Like David Fincher’s Gone Girl, tension permeates the plot from the opening sequence. Viewers can feel the violence coming from a million miles away, but the twists still horrify. Also like Fincher, director Bennett Miller’s best work derives from adaptation (Moneyball, Capote). Foxcatcher tells the true story of the Schultz brothers, Olympic Gold medal-winning wrestlers, who are seduced by a wealthy benefactor who invites them to his estate in Pennsylvania to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
Director: Bennett Miller
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Megan Ellison, John Kilik, Bennett Miller
Writers: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Cinematographer: Greig Fraser
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill
Music: Rob Simonsen
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Venessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice
Premiere: May 19, 2014 - Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 14, 2014
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is the older, more confident brother. Though he is supportive and gentle, his younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum) resents his success and strength of mind. Mark is a simple man: he lives alone, eats Ramen, and has no friends. When he receives a phone call from John du Pont (played by an unrecognizable Steve Carrell), the heir of the Du Pont family fortune, he decides to visit the residence and entertain the possibility of training there. Du Pont offers Mark residency and a sizable salary, so the simplistic wrestler decides to uproot himself and move to Pennsylvania.
What begins as a nurturing, mutually supportive relationship quickly turns into one of abuse and manipulation. Du Pont wedges himself into the role of Mark’s father figure, coach, and confidant. He lures Mark into drug use and forces him to deliver a speech that praises du Pont. The whole relationship reads homoerotic, especially when the roles are reversed and Mark starts coaching du Pont in wrestling for an over-50 age bracket. When everything inevitably begins to spiral out of control, du Pont bribes Dave into moving to Pennsylvania to sort out the mess he made.
The sprawling landscapes of the Foxcatcher estate establish an immediate visual deficit. This lack both foreshadows future plots points as well as contributes to the impeccable pacing of the film. A large chunk of Foxcatcher seems decidedly non-narrative in the sense that Miller lets the lives of his characters unfold without specific plot motivations. Viewers are privy to various snapshots of life on the estate: du Pont at the shooting range, Mark running through the woods, Dave playing with his kids on a Sunday afternoon. Miller creates suspense by slowing inching toward doom, reinforced by his exacting camera and vacuous diegesis.
Perhaps because Foxcatcher bears such close resemblance to reality, the film feels like a genuine critique of the forces that corrupt and drive men in America. Each of Miller’s three protagonists experiences some crisis of masculinity: Mark can never seem to escape his older brother’s shadow, du Pont yearns to earn the approval of his dying mother, and Dave struggles to balance his family life as patriarch with his wrestling career. Miller also equates violence with masculinity. Throughout Foxcatcher, the U.S. Army serves as a haunting backdrop to the impending tragedy of the film. Soldiers come and go on the estate with an unnerving ease. A particularly chilling moment comes when Du Pont special orders a tank only to explode at the deliveryman, angry that it doesn’t include a machine gun on top. Du Pont’s world is lawless and the characters indulge in their worst habits while there. This is what happens when a wealthy, single, fatherless, childless man assembles a team of hyper-masculine wrestlers.
The actors at the forefront of this film crystallize the nuances of this crisis. The characters bear shocking resemblance to their real life counterparts and lay bear the complex psychological processes and pressures on these men. Though initially it is difficult to believe Mark Ruffalo as a wrestler, his body language and demeanor are so spot on that these worries soon evaporate. Channing Tatum proves once again that he is capable and deserving of serious roles. He gives dignity to a character that some might write off as simple-minded. But most impressive is Steve Carrell’s performance as du Pont. Viewers are simultaneously horrified, sympathetic, and charmed by him. If this does not earn him an Oscar nomination, I am officially done with the Academy.
Foxcatcher succeeds where other films of its genre have failed: it carefully navigates its deeper themes while establishing a total mood of suspense and horror. Bring your sons, brothers, fathers, boyfriends and go see it immediately.