Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
Directed by Bennett Miller
John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) speaks to his newly-founded wrestling squad about patriotic values as if reciting a sport-oriented “Star-Spangled Banner.” But du Pont is no Francis Scott Key — his words are weak, but his money is strong. This is du Pont’s America in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher: a grand team that he’s accidentally but proudly charging through his money, a game that can be bought. Yes, the film intends to talk about America as much as it does the disquieting personalities of this bleak true story. Though saturated with grandiose metaphors and a message worn carelessly on its sleeves, Foxcatcher confirms Bennett Miller as one of the best character directors working in Hollywood.
Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark (Channing Tatum) Schultz slither their way into various contortions and show off their athletic prowess as they train within a local gym of Lindon, Utah. They’re far removed from their legacy as Olympic gold medalists in this humble community, though Mark still feels as if he’s in the shadow of his older brother as he is asked to replace Dave in one of his elementary school speeches. Dave, on the other hand, has enough honor to become used to it, settling down and cheering for his younger brother to make a hearty success. With a fine grain of luck, Mark receives a call from John du Pont, the self-proclaimed richest man in America, looking to use his talents for his “Foxcatcher” team in the 1988 Olympics. Unbeknownst to Mark, John’s schizophrenia, progressed by his consistently disappointed mother, forces him to emotionally manipulate the younger Schultz into feeling independent from Dave, only to dramatically reverse the process when the games go awry.
The throughline for the tension in the narrative is keenly woven through the relations between the Schultz brothers and the du Ponts. John’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) wrestles with a cold distance as her son fails to meet the family standard of winning a plethora medals for foxcatching. Instead, he pursues old-money activities of ornithology, philanthropy, philately, and now, the “low sport” of wrestling. Driven by his mother issues, he abandons his faith in Mark for the sure-shot chance of winning in Dave’s coaching skills, which invariably sparks the long-fueled jealousy within Mark once again. Mark’s breakdown causes the team to weaken, which then fuels John’s incessant promotion of Dave, which begins the cycle over again.
Each top-notch performance elucidates a darker, less simplistic explanation for their behavior. John isn’t evil, but pulls his punches from mental illness and is made laughably naïve from his privilege. Dave is charitable and supportive, but only because he’s always maintained the upper hand in the family. Mark, perhaps Channing Tatum’s most suited role, bashes his bloody head against a mirror, grunts more than Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, and despite evidence to the contrary, loves the hell out of his brother. These characters are not guided by the somewhat predictable narrative but by their humanity, offering a spirit behind the sport that is often cited in Raging Bull.
Behind these larger-than-life personalities lies a broadly political subtext of what it means to be a patriot. Du Pont’s estate is littered with American flags and “Foxcatcher” insignia, his order of a large tank is sent back after the military forgets his 50-caliber machine gun. He’s proud of being an American and the sort of power that represents, but sees his wealth as an authoritative entry into representing it. It’s not so much that du Pont is an American; he’s America itself, though he’s resolutely the land of the rich, home of the powerful. The last scene before the harrowing end shows du Pont staring at a blank television screen having watched the sappy, artificial documentary about his “coaching” at Team Foxcatcher. It’s his mind-numbing realization that his status has not been earned, but bought: his premonitions of himself, as well as America, collapsing all at once.
Though Foxcatcher may revel a bit much in its bleak American stage, the distinct powerhouse performances alone are reminiscent of those orchestrated by Renoir and Welles. Miller’s writers have a keen eye for introducing shades of noirish substance into a transgressive allegory of power, but Miller’s own cool, broad tone softens its blow until its wild, grim finale. Foxcatcher plays less like a movie for sports-lovers; it’s more an inquiry into the spiritually-charged personalities that make athletics enthralling. It carries the ghost of Raging Bull with Tatum setting his own stage as the next De Niro.
– Zach Lewis