With Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) directs a tragic tale of American ambition gone awry. It’s a grave and stately undertaking that’s based on the real story of John du Pont, heir to one of the richest families in America, who dreamed of building a wrestling team around the talents of two gold medal wrestlers that came from modest means. The inequality of power pushes the tension between the three over the edge. Although the film isn’t an awe-inspiring achievement as a whole, the performances and atmosphere stimulate the senses and hold a firm grip on the viewer’s attention.
In the aftermath of Olympic glory, brothers David and Mark Schlutz are assessing their options. That David (Mark Ruffalo) is the more coveted, recognizable and talented of the pair causes a rift between the siblings. David, with his heart fixated on his young family and flooded with local opportunities, doesn’t know of the gamut of rejection his little brother Mark (Channing Tatum) is facing alone. Enter du Pont (Steve Carell), who shrewdly sees co-opting the time of the vulnerable Mark as a way to eventually gain the expertise of the reluctant David. Bringing Mark to live and practice wrestling on his family’s vast estate, du Pont knowingly distills all the youth and promise he can out of him. Mark and John’s mutually destructive desire to achieve the pinnacle of wrestling is increasingly alarming to watch as they fester in each other’s company. An ominous air hangs over the entirety of the film with du Pont’s ego and money pushing the action toward an inevitably messy conclusion. The anticipation vacillates with uncluttered dialogue and the restricted use of sound lending to a sparse atmosphere that echoes the emptiness of du Pont’s life.
Carell’s transformation into the slumped and aging would-be world-class promoter is convincing for the most part with his stilted physical presence melding well with his blunt articulations. John du Pont holds himself up to be a patriot and a master athlete, but it’s immediately apparent that his thirst for total conquest, coupled with his family’s money, has crippled his ability to function as a person. Carell the comedian peaks out of his character every now and then with riotous deliveries of lines. One doubts that the real du Pont was so inadvertently funny. The pomposity of the character engages as much as it sickens. The purchase of military grade weapons and an excess of drugs is fascinating to a point, but his antics weary the viewer as much as they wear thin on the brothers.
As the pitiable Mark, Channing Tatum is most captivating during scenes of remarkably authentic-looking self-inflicted violence. There is an admirable commitment to the pain Mark is physically and mentally going through that Tatum is anchored to with each blow from himself and others. Tatum continues to redirect the cinematic sexual gaze to the male body, but here gives added dimension by way of the spotlight on his character’s shortcomings. From overeating to punching himself,the methods that Mark uses to control his body and mind are mesmerizingly disturbing. The act of touch comes heavily into focus as the main male characters grip, slide, hug, flip, caress and pin each other. Rarely do you see two brothers on-screen convey everything about the contentiousness and competition between them so intimately with their bodies. Static shots of limbs moving over limbs and torsos excellently mirror the mind games at play.
There is dynamism in the way David is able to quietly but firmly deny giving into du Pont’s every whim. David possesses real riches in the form of a warm family and respect from hard-won achievements that could never be bought. There might not be as much buzz about it but Mark Ruffalo’s appearance is changed as much as Carell’s — balding, slightly more weary than usual, and intensely physically trained to persuade the audience that he could dominate an imposing presence like Tatum.
The women of the film live in margins of importance. As the cold matriarch of the du Pont clan, Vanessa Redgrave sits in dour judgement of her son’s failures and the “low” preoccupation he has with wrestling. Some of John’s behavior can be attributed to his oppressive mother and isolated upbringing, but he has had more than enough time as an adult to work past so desperately needing approval. Sienna Miller’s Nancy is protective of her family with David but registers very little else other than reaction shots. This movie belongs to men negotiating the failures and successes of their masculinity or family life. Foxcatcher will draw viewers in for its cast, but is to be appreciated for the uncommon approach it takes to ambient sound and the palpable use of the power of touch between these men.
— Lane Scarberry