In 1996, John E. du Pont, an heir to one of America’s largest fortunes, shot and killed wrestler Dave Schultz, a former gold medal Olympian who ran the wrestling training program on du Pont’s Pennsylvania estate. Du Pont, who died in prison in 2010, was ruled “not in his right mind,” but the motive for the murder has always remained murky.
This may sound like tabloid fodder, but “Foxcatcher,” directed by Bennett Miller and written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, is an altogether extraordinary film about the psychopathology of the ties that bind, both familial and financial. It’s rare to see an American movie that explores, let alone acknowledges, the class system in this country, or one that gets so far inside the abyss of the ethic that drives so many men to succeed – and to implode when they don’t.
The film’s initial focus is not Dave (Mark Ruffalo) but his brother, Mark (Channing Tatum), also a wrestling gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics. Unlike his gregarious sibling, who lives with his wife (Sienna Miller) and two children in Colorado, where he coaches, Mark lives alone in a threadbare apartment in Wisconsin crammed with trophies. To eke out a living he gives rote inspirational speeches to schoolchildren.
With his jutting jaw and thick forehead, Mark is a hulking, simianlike presence. He is almost painfully inexpressive but, when he’s wrestling, his body language has a kinesthetic force. In an early training-session scene we see Mark and Dave grappling, and everything we need to know about their relationship, with its volatile mix of loving kindness and ferocity, is right there.
Despite his accomplishments, Mark has always felt overshadowed by his celebrated older brother, who helped raise him from an early age when their parents split. This is why, when he gets a call out of the blue from du Pont (Steve Carell), who offers him a chance to set up a training center at his Foxcatcher estate, he is instantly lured.
Du Pont, the self-professed superpatriot, talks up wrestling as a higher calling – a way to reestablish America’s strength on a worldwide stage at the upcoming 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He gives Mark’s inchoate yearnings a regal imprimatur. But immediately we can see (as Mark does not) what is really going on. Du Pont, pasty and thin-voiced, with a beaked nose, is imperially creepy. He speaks in a halting cadence, but his words, even when seeming offhanded, carry a sub-zero chill. He doesn’t brook back talk.
Du Pont’s real prize is Dave, who initially balks at moving with his family to the estate. “You can’t buy Dave,” Mark tells a nonplussed du Pont. In his world, anybody can be bought, and so it is, eventually, with Dave. By the time he shows up, Mark and du Pont have already fallen out – he slapped Mark in full view of the other athletes and called him an "ungrateful ape" – and Dave’s ascendancy further drives his brother into a seething sulk.
“Foxcatcher” features a trio of extraordinary performances (a quartet if you count Vanessa Redgrave’s cameo as du Pont’s cold-eyed mother, who regards wrestling as a “low sport”). Tatum gets at the self-loathing of a man whose professional victories are smothered by his personal anguish. Ruffalo creates a character who is exceedingly “normal” and yet rived with passion. The tenderness Dave shows his brother over and over again, even as Mark rejects him, is the most beautiful gesture in the movie.
Carell, who has rarely attempted dramatic roles, so completely makes himself over as du Pont that he is almost unrecognizable. He captures the way du Pont, through steely insinuation, uses his privilege as a weapon. The filmmakers don’t specify how du Pont descended into madness – at one point he demanded to be addressed as the Dalai Lama – and so we are left to infer that his particular brand of ultra-creepiness is endemic to the very wealthy. As unfair as this may be, it works dramatically.
In “Foxcatcher,” the usages of money warp everything. It’s left ambiguous whether Mark submitted sexually to du Pont, but certainly there is no ambiguity in a sequence like the one in which Dave, interviewed for a promotional video, is instructed to speak in falsely glowing terms about his “mentor.” And so this proud man haltingly debases himself. It’s a great scene and a great piece of acting.
The film, which states upfront that it’s “based on true events,” takes liberties with the facts of the case and overstates Mark’s furious solitude in order to play up the almost biblical fraternal angle. But the liberties serve a larger truth about human experience. “Foxcatcher” doesn’t make the mistake of trying to say Something Important about America; it’s a movie about three very different men unheedingly caught in a cycle of destruction. And yet the story is so powerfully observed that it does indeed become larger than itself – an American tragedy. Grade: A (Rated R for some drug use and a scene of violence.)