Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is certainly an example of truth being stranger than fiction and we see it play in bizarre, unsettling, tragic, and fascinating ways in the director’s third feature. His previous two efforts, 2005’s Capote and 2011’s Moneyball, dealt with the issue of competitive nature within us and Foxcatcher does as well. This time around, it’s in a much darker fashion.
The film tells the fact based story of two Olympic gold medalists, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schulz (Mark Ruffalo) and their relationship with John du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to his family’s chemical mega fortune. Foxcatcher begins in 1987 when the brothers are training for the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. The early proceedings show that Mark is a bit in his brother’s shadow. He has to remind others that he won the gold. Dave doesn’t seem to have that issue.
Mark’s preparation for Seoul takes a turn when he is contacted by people affiliated with Mr. du Pont, who resides on a sprawling family compound/horse ranch in Pennsylvania. He is summoned to the estate where du Pont expresses his desire to help Mark realize his goals. In the meantime, he will provide a state of the art practice facility. Dave is extended the same offer, but declines. Mark is impressionable and it doesn’t take long for du Pont to establish a strange and often creepy bond with him. Dave watches from afar with growing concern, at least initially.
du Pont’s behavior includes an affinity for guns and a highly inflated opinion of his actual ability to train young men to wrestle. Most write this off as him being an eccentric millionaire. He monograms his clothing with Team Foxcatcher, his hand picked name for his squad of brawlers. He produces documentaries about himself which extol his questionable virtues. John also has serious Mommy issues with the matriarch of the dynasty (Vanessa Redgrave).
Family issues are central to Foxcatcher and it extends to the brothers. Mark and Dave grew up poor and moved around a lot. The concept of home is foreign to them. du Pont is available to provide one for Mark and eventually Dave. The financial stability involved keep them there for longer than it should. We witness Mark go from adoration of his sibling to contempt and du Pont plays a role. We witness Dave go against his better instincts with du Pont and allow the promise of a place to settle override his genuine concerns.
Along the way, we are privy to three powerhouse performances from the leads. Carell has received the lion’s share of publicity and it’s easy to see why. The actor known mostly for his comedic talents is unrecognizable with his heavy makeup job. He oozes awkwardness and insecurity and supreme creepiness. The film is not overly concerned with delving into how du Pont became so unhinged, but we see glimpses and some suggestions as to why. And that’s mostly enough.
Tatum’s work is impressive in its own right and his performance is an accomplishment of body language, from his slightly dumb jock lumbering to a scene where his movements best represent a wounded dog who’s upset his owner. Ruffalo is the heart of the movie and yet even his heart isn’t always in the best place, when he places the aforementioned promise of a comfortable life higher than du Pont’s increasingly scary actions.
Foxcatcher is an absorbing character study of these three individuals just as Miller has done before with Truman Capote and Billy Beane. This is no doubt the bleakest of the lot, but once again the director has picked a fascinating true story and the right actors to realize his telling of it.
***1/2 (out of four)