Like Raging Bull, Foxcatcher is a dark drama masquerading as a sports movie. Also like Raging Bull, Foxcatcher is based on a true story. Although such comparisons risk overselling Bennett Miller's new movie, Foxcatcher isn't afraid of venturing into territory avoided by most sports-related motion pictures. This isn't an inspirational film; in fact, quite the opposite is true. It's about the warped side of human nature and how the isolation resulting from wealth and power can have tragic consequences.
A warning to those unaware of the criminal case from the late 1990s upon which the film is based: this review contains spoilers related to the historical events. Foxcatcher isn't a true crime movie; the murder that riveted news programs doesn't happen until the closing moments of the film. This is instead about the relationships formed among the principals in the incident and the events leading up to it. Miller's thesis, as advanced by the screenplay co-credited to E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, is that the roots of the tragedy can be traced back to the fractious relationship between uber-wealthy John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) and his mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). It's not quite Mommy Dearest but the results are no less appalling. Everything in the way du Pont interacts with brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is influenced by his desire for his mother's respect (which he doesn't get) and his pathological need to overshadow her achievements. He lives in her shadow just as Mark lives in Dave's.
The screenplay compresses events that transpired over a ten-year period into about a fifth of that time. It begins in the run-up to the 1987 world wrestling championships where brothers (both former Olympic gold medalists from 1984) Mark and Dave plan to compete. Du Pont, one of the wealthiest men in America, asks Mark to visit him at his Pennsylvania estate with a proposal: if Mark will relocate to train at his facility, he will pay him $25,000 per year. Du Pont wants to be associated with a champion, to bask in reflected glory. The repressed homosexual attraction remains largely in the subtext. Mark agrees, but Dave remains behind, unwilling to uproot his family. Du Pont is initially disappointed, hoping to get the brothers as a package, but he makes due with what he has. Mark and du Pont forge the beginnings of an odd friendship, but events take a dark turn when Mark experiences a loss of focus. Dave is eventually enticed to move to Pennsylvania - a decision with unforeseeable tragic consequences.
From the first time we meet him, we see du Pont as an odd character. His introduction to Mark is awkward because neither character is good in social settings. Their conversation doesn't flow naturally and is filled with pauses. Du Pont has little experience in the art of interpersonal interaction and it comes across in the way he relates to Mark. He views his wrestlers in much the same way his mother perceives her horses: a way to get statues and citations for the shelves in the mansion's "trophy room." Du Pont despises horses - "all they do is eat and shit" - and believes that enabling wrestlers to be a more noble pursuit. Jean, on the other hand, sees wrestling as "low" and is visibly upset when she witnesses her son practicing moves with members of Team Foxcatcher (possibly because she recognizes the signs of latent homosexuality).
At one time or another, most mainstream comedians test their acting abilities by appearing in a dramatic role. This isn't the first time Carell has tackled a mostly serious part but on this occasion there's no lingering tendril of lightheartedness. The first thing one notices are the prosthetics he wears to better resemble du Pont, and there are times when the shoddy makeup undercuts the performance. Nevertheless, Carell accomplishes something noteworthy, hinting at the sense of unpredictability and danger lurking beneath the apparently placid and agreeable surface. There's a coiled serpent waiting to strike. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, in less "showy" roles, are solid. Miller has always gotten worthy performances from his casts - Phillip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for Capote and Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill were nominated for Moneyball - and Foxcatcher is no exception.
Those looking for an inspirational, feel-good sports movie about a wrestler who overcomes the odds to rise to the top would do better looking elsewhere. Foxcatcher downplays those elements in favor of examining the evolution of the relationship between a sponsor and an athlete and the control the former exerts over the latter. The ending is shocking but, because of the grim tone established by Miller, it isn't unexpected. Above all, this is a fascinating psychological study and the questions it asks about du Pont are no more answerable on screen than they were in real life.
© 2014 James Berardinelli