On January 26, 1996 John Eleuthère du Pont fatally shot Olympic Gold Medalist Dave Schultz in the driveway of his home at du Pont’s sprawling Foxcatcher Farm in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. A prominent member of one of America’s oldest and wealthiest remnants of the perennial aristocracy, du Pont sponsored scores of amateur athletes throughout the 80’s and 90’s, housing them at a state of the art training facility at his home outside Philadelphia. du Pont died in prison in 2010, and aside from an insanity plea that was thrown out by the judge during trial, his motive for killing Schultz was never definitively determined. Foxcatcher, the latest from director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), attempts, to varying degrees of success, to contextualize this murder by illuminating the backstory and examining the relationships between du Pont, Schultz and his brother Mark.
The film picks up in 1987 at a quiet evening training session for the brothers Schultz. Mark (Channing Tatum), a gold medalist in his own right, is in the thick of a rigorous training regimen in the run-up to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Under the tutelage of his older and more celebrated brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), Mark struggles to make ends meet, eating ramen noodles in his sparse apartment and scraping together what money he can with low-paid speaking engagements to indifferent middle schoolers. Dave is an affable family man, Mark more brooding and bitter, but it’s clear that the brothers are very close, displaying something more akin to a father/son relationship. After the two receive an invitation from the eccentric millionaire to recruit and train a team of wrestlers for the Seoul games (whom du Pont dubs “Team Foxcatcher”, complete with branded tracksuits), Mark believes their ship has finally come in; Dave is more dubious, however, and declines the offer, and with that Mark packs his belongings for the long trip to Pennsylvania.
It’s blatantly apparent from his first appearance that something is off with John E. du Pont (a fantastic, cast-against-type Steve Carell). His stilted speech and affected mannerisms bely a lonely, sheltered, obscenely opulent upbringing, and it’s clear that du Pont’s interest in wrestling is as much about his need to be accepted and revered as it is about the sport itself. After a successful trip to the ‘87 World Wrestling Championships Mark and John begin to develop a close bond, seemingly aided in large part by copious amounts of cocaine, but mostly due to a mutual loneliness and need for connection and camaraderie. Ties begin to fray, however, as du Pont grows increasingly adamant that Dave be involved. The personal and physical strain leave Mark reeling through a potentially disastrous showing at the ‘88 Olympic trials, one of the film’s strongest passages and the centerpiece of Tatum’s seething performance. This sequence at once shows the depths of Mark’s emotional problems, the strength of his relationship (and athletic partnership) with Dave, and his crazed determination as a sportsman.
It’s around that point that Foxcatcher seems to lose it’s way a bit. Miller seems unsure of how to move the film from the beginning of the third act to the conclusion, and the last 20 or so minutes read conversely (and perplexingly) as both rushed and dragged out. It may be that Carell, with a creep-o level amped to 11 throughout the proceedings, has nowhere else to go in the ramp up to his character’s crime. The result is an ending that fizzles rather than pops, and it’s what keeps Foxcatcher from becoming great. The cast is this film’s strong suit, and the performances elevate it to the point where most viewers will forgive the writer and director for not sticking the landing. Ruffalo turns in the most nuanced performance, and an important late scene reveals the imperfections of a character who is otherwise held up as the film’s level head. Channing Tatum proves again that he’s not just a hunk of meat, imbuing Mark with real pathos and a palpable sense of emotional pain. His level of restraint reminded me of Pacino in The Godfather: his sporadic outbursts are all the more jarring because he’s so quiet throughout most of the film. Carell sometimes verges on caricature (I watched a YouTube video of the real-life du Pont and he was markedly less creepy), but he taps into a real sadness that many say lurks in the heart of all comedians. It certainly works well enough that I respect the radical casting choice by Miller.
Aesthetically the film is gorgeous in it’s drabness, but Miller (with the help of cinematographer Greig Fraser) concocts some lovely visual flourishes as well: Carrel running spastically through a stable, silhouetted against stampeding horses; Tatum’s head hitting the mat, a single bead of sweat (or tear?) running down his face. All of the wrestling scenes, in fact, are very interesting to watch; they’re almost instructional, and they gave me a new appreciation for the sport as a game of strategy and physics rather than simple brute force. I also appreciated the use of archival footage of the du Pont family in the film’s opening sequence, the way it contextualized both Carell’s character and the films principle set piece.
Foxcatcher is a flawed but fascinating film that delivers on performance and presentation but falls a bit short on narrative. It’s disappointing in its lack of cohesion, yes, but as a showcase of some of the year’s best performances it’s an arresting and haunting experience.