Steve Carell steps out of the office and into the dark mind of John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s gripping drama Foxcatcher. Bolstered by a trio of awards-worthy performances and heavy on the verisimilitude, it’s an exceedingly dark tale of classism, corruption, and how the strong prey on the weak. Returning to the true crime genre that he so successfully mined in his debut feature Capote, Miller’s Foxcatcher takes its time in its portrayal of a distinctly American tragedy and says a lot about the country that spawned it, much of it unflinching and bleak.
The atmosphere is grim from the outset, as we’re introduced to wrestling champion Mark Schultz who – despite being a Gold Medal Olympian – fills his time outside the gym in a dingy bachelor apartment, eating instant noodles and playing Gameboy alone. Channing Tatum is nearly unrecognizable in the role, with a jutting out lower lip and a heavily furrowed brow. He’s tamped down his natural charisma to play a man of few words, one who lives in the shadow of his older brother. That brother is fellow Gold Medal Olympian Dave Schultz. With a high hairline, loping gait, and more muscle mass than usual, Mark Ruffalo brings a similarly committed physicality to the role of Dave, the more gregarious of the brothers. There’s a great early scene that establishes the brothers’ relationship while they spar. Dave, the older and more seasoned wrestler, is warming up with Mark and testing his limits. Dave puts Mark into holds, and Mark breaks free, growing more ferocious each time. It’s a conversation with no words, the older guiding the younger, and the younger seeking to excel in his craft and surpass his brother. Their relationship is clearly loving but strained economically, as Mark needs more money to train and Dave has to support his family and do what’s best for them.
The answer to Mark’s problems arrives serendipitously in the form of a mysterious phone call from a man who represents John du Pont. When Mark professes ignorance as to who that is, he’s sent a videotape that explains that John is a member of the storied du Pont family, original robber barons now grown incredibly wealthy from chemical interests and the fat of the land. Mark (and later Dave) is summoned by helicopter to the sprawling Delaware du Pont estate in an ostentatious display of wealth and power by John. There he comes face-to-face with the enigmatic John E. du Pont, played by an utterly transformed Steve Carell. The prosthetics may indicate that Carell wanted to “ugly himself up” in the pursuit of an Oscar but this is no mere awards-bait performance. Carell’s du Pont is incredibly measured, oddly effete, and dangerously out-of-touch. A man whose vast wealth and privilege has shielded him from the harsh outside world, John is a loner with no friends and little human contact outside of his staff and disinterested mother. He takes solace in his numerous hobbies like: philanthropy, philately (stamp collecting!), and sponsoring amateur wrestling. John offers to put Mark up on his property and pay for his training so that he may join the burgeoning Foxcatcher wresting team (named after du Pont family farm), which Mark eagerly accepts despite prescient words of warning from his brother. Neither could have known just how deep John’s pathology would run.
From there the film segues into the story of John and Mark’s growing relationship, and its path from jovial to toxic as John’s grasp on reality slips. John sought to be Mark’s mentor, father figure, and perhaps even more as the film hints at John’s carnal designs but skirts around addressing them directly. That delicate touch extends to the movie as a whole, as Bennett Miller has created what seems like a very even-handed account of what took place. He had input from the Schultzes (Mark Ruffalo wears Dave Schultz’s actual glasses in the film for example) and there was no lack of material to draw upon when making the film. Miller also brings a sharp eye to the training and wrestling sequences, perhaps a holdover from his work on the similarly perceptive sports film Moneyball, made directly prior to this. The level of detail and craft put into Foxcatcher is remarkable, as we’re drawn into this chilling tale of abuse of power – the perversion of the American Dream. For those that don’t know the true story of John du Pont and the Schultz brothers, there’s another level of discovery at play here. For those that do know how it ends, the dread must be even more suffocating and unbearable.
For its deliberate pace and considerable length, Foxcatcher avoids pop psychology and easy answers in terms of what happened. We’re given a glimpse into a deteriorating mind and get to know, and empathize with, the champion brothers unfortunate enough to get caught in its path. That power corrupts is hardly a new concept, but the grace and craft that went into making Foxcatcher show that it’s a story worth telling, one that will always be timely so long as the gulfs between men exist.