WARNING: This review contains spoilers, inasmuch as you can spoil a film based on a nearly twenty-year-old news story.
I was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh in 1996, when troubled multi-millionaire John du Pont, heir to a centuries-old Pennsylvania chemical fortune, was arrested for the murder of Dave Schultz, a gold medal-winning Olympic wrestler who had been training with du Pont's champion-hopeful team at the family's Foxcatcher Farms estate. The story was covered heavily in the PA press at the time, perhaps more so than in the rest of the world, but mired as I was in my studies, my awareness of the case in '96, and thus my memory of the events now, was sketchy at best, grossly misinformed at worst. (I specifically remember believing, from the half-heard drib and drab that constituted my knowledge of the murder, that du Pont and Dave had been lovers.) When I did think about it at all, my reaction was not that much different than that of Bennett Miller, director of Foxcatcher, the punishingly intense new docudrama about the du Pont / Schultz killing. In the film's press notes, the director recalls at first finding the whole story funny. I mean, after all, this pasty, fey-voiced rich boy is obsessed to the point of murder with wrestling? What would make a man like du Pont so caught up in something so seemingly beneath a person of his perceived stature? And what sort of wrestlers would look at someone like du Pont and think, "This man can make me a champion"?
Foxcatcher engages all of these questions and many more, resulting in a terrifying and resonant motion picture that stands tall as the year's best so far. In a year and an election cycle that has grappled seriously with the often poisonous influence of privilege, this is 2014's definitive cinematic essay on the subject, a bold treatise on the ways in which money, class, gender and sheer brute physical skill often trump all other concerns in determining who is on top and who's flat on the mat, and the deviant darkness unlocked when the supposedly privileged run up against a reality that their assumed advantages are not able to surmount. (I walked out of the theater thinking as much about Elliot Rodger as about John du Pont.) The film also deals with the frequently equally corrosive nature of patriotism, and the many negative "virtues," from crushing the weak under your heel to our nation's ever-more-costly obsessive love of firearms, that encompass what it means to be a "true American." At its heart, though, Foxcatcher is ultimately a story about three men, two of whom are defined by needs so deep-seated and unconquerable that they irrevocably alter their destinies, while costing the third man his very life.
In a small but thematically relevant alteration of the historical record, Miller and his screenwriters, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Miller's previous crime-centered docudrama Capote), have moved the events of the Schultz murder from the mid-1990s back to the late 1980s. It's the waning days of Reagan's America, and the President's promise of a new national morning has given way to the dusky sunset of a harsh, economically fraught reality. The first figure we are introduced to is not du Pont or the ill-fated Dave, but rather Dave's brother Mark (Channing Tatum), a fellow gold medal winner whose post-Olympic fortunes, to put it mildly, have not soared on eagle's wings. He lives in a grungy midwestern apartment, spends his afternoons wolfing down lonely cheeseburgers in his car or ramen noodles as he stares at the wall, and supplements a seemingly barely existent income with $20 speaking engagements at local schools…and he's only able to book those when the schools can't get Dave (Mark Ruffalo), whose natural affability and easygoing charm, not to mention his considerable wrestling skills, have carried him to much steadier employment and a possible berth as a coach for the US national team. Dave's potential departure would be just the latest in a string of abandonments for the introverted, inarticulate Mark, who has swum in his brother's wake since their itinerant, fatherless childhood. Mark's speech to the schoolchildren, a collection of hollow platitudes about American excellence and how "you can be anything you want to be," is reminiscent of a returning veteran of a little-lamented war, who has granted his country a bit of refracted glory and who has now ceased to serve any practical purpose for the nation to whom he gave so much. Mark is frustrated, discontented, and ready to listen to anybody who's willing to put a little of that much-missed faith in him. And the universe answers his unspoken call by sending him du Pont (Steve Carell, hard to spot behind considerable makeup and a halting, eastern patrician accent), whose offer to coach Mark back to the glory of the wrestling ring is nothing less than a cult leader's all-strings-attached promise of eternal salvation.
As du Pont assembles a cadre of aspiring champions at his family estate, with Mark as their unofficial team captain, the mysterious pathologies of this would-be crafter of Olympians begin to reveal themselves. A man who has never had to work a day in his life, du Pont has busied himself with the typical pursuits of the idle rich; he is a philatelist, a somewhat celebrated ornithologist, and an amateur marksman, with an obsession with guns so absolute that he throws a tantrum when a tank he has purchased, seemingly for no reason, arrives without its expected .50 caliber machine gun mounted on top. (In a lightly handled but metaphorically weighty piece of contextualization, a documentary video Mark watches about the du Pont family mentions that the origins of their fortune lay in the manufacture and sale of gunpowder.) Du Pont controls when his wrestlers, especially Mark, can eat and sleep, and what they do with their down time, which for Mark means accompanying du Pont to fundraising dinners so he can parrot pre-prepared phrases of praise about his beloved coach. They also share copious quantities of cocaine and late-night two-man practice sessions that are reminiscent, in a piercing close-up of Mark face-down on the mats as du Pont tussles with him, of homosexual rape. All of this, the pomp and pageantry, the grandstanding speeches and "inspirational" visits to nearby Valley Forge, are a means for du Pont to finally, finally impress his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), a frosty finishing-school matriarch who alternately coddled her son (to the point of paying teenagers to be his friend when he was in high school) and discouraged him from anything that would have enabled him to set himself apart from his historically significant name, most notably wrestling, which the champion equestrienne merely characterizes as "a low sport." And when even his stewardship of Team Foxcatcher does not allow du Pont to vanquish his Oedipal demons, he does the only thing he feels he can do: He throws all the money he can muster at Dave and has him join the team at Foxcatcher. But Dave has always been the greatest influence on Mark's life, for better or worse, and when the fraternal warmth and genuine wrestler's wisdom of Dave begins to usurp du Pont's position, both as the head of the Foxcatcher team and as Mark's guardian angel, a barely maintained purchase on sanity begins to utterly fall away.
Miller received the best director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his work on Foxcatcher, and his helming of the film is a reflection of du Pont himself: fiercely comprehensive control concealing the roiling emotions underneath. Virtually humorless, the film simmers with unspoken tensions and pain almost from the very first scene; an early practice session between Mark and Dave vibrates with the conflicting love and hostility between two men who we feel have always been close, but have likely never really talked about how they feel about one another. The director handles the picture's showcase scenes in an understated style that keeps them from turning into mere set pieces, while still mustering all of the considerable filmmaking skill at his command. A scene in which Mark, furious at himself for losing a championship match, trashes a hotel room is so intense and unspeakably painful it's almost hard to watch, and Dave's fumbling attempts to verbally express the methodology behind du Pont's coaching style during a TV interview is social satire of a sly high order. The pace is brooding throughout, the atmosphere coiled, explosion ever percolating beneath the surface; even when du Pont finally lashes out and slaps Mark (a moment that struck the screening audience with which I saw the film silent), he never raises his voice beyond his usual, deceptively serene tones. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) favors shadowy lighting, muted colors, and compositions that, through distribution of onscreen space or careful deployment of foreground and background objects and figures, frequently isolates his characters onscreen, emphasizing their alienation…very fitting for a story of two men who have essentially lived their entire lives on the outside looking in. Handheld camera is sparingly employed, unleashing the emotional turmoil the characters are otherwise unable to express, as when du Pont, driven into a near-zombie-like state by the death of his hated, ever-disapproving mother, releases her prize horses into the fields surrounding the estate. Miller also creates extremely credible wrestling scenes, never tricking up the essentially close-quarters, heavy-shouldered nature of the sport and refraining from making any of the matches depicted onscreen really about "who wins." After all, who cares whose shoulders are on the mat when the one you're really fighting is yourself? Editors Stuart Levy, Conor O'Neill and Jay Cassidy maintain the even but emotionally fraught atmosphere established by Miller and Fraser, and the chilly foreboding is amplified by a deep-bellied, brooding score by Rob Simonsen, with an assist from West Dylan Thordson and Mychael Danna (an Oscar winner for Life of Pi).
Frye and Futterman's screenplay is brilliant in its anatomization of the particular issues plaguing Mark and du Pont. For Mark, a simple man who wanted nothing but the security of family, friends and the respect that comes with being one of the best in the world at your chosen field, has earned all of these things and then seen them denied to him again and again. It's little wonder that he is drawn to du Pont, the scion of a celebrated old-money American clan, the kind of man whose entrance into a room moves everyone out of their seats. So caught up is Mark in the American promise of wealth and exalted status that du Pont represents that he never realizes that, if du Pont's last name were Smith or Watson, or Schultz, most people wouldn't look his way to sneer at him. Du Pont does possess a degree of self-awareness that Mark doesn't, and he knows, whether or not he can articulate it, that the Foxcatcher wrestling team is his one opportunity to forge something real, something potent and impressive and lasting, that's his, that flies in the face of his family's history and legacy, that indeed may discredit its patrician leanings by its very nature. (A major sticking point between du Pont and his mother is the placement of wrestling trophies and awards in a case previously reserved for the family's equestrian prizes.) He sees in Mark's physical power and athletic prowess all that he never was, but all that he can be via an act of vampiric siphoning of the wrestler's glory. Du Pont, in essence, is the typical American war hawk, sending a young man into battle to bruise and abuse his body for the achievement of a glory that will, at the end of the day, serve only his betters while relegating him to an ever more physically decrepit shadow state. And both men harbor resentments towards Dave, who has both the physical gifts of Mark and the peer-group respect of du Pont, but who possesses in spades something they both lack utterly: complete comfort in his own skin. It's a gift that many struggle to achieve, but one that comes to Dave as easily as breathing. It is not a virtue harbored in a vengeful or selfish way, but it ultimately drives a wedge between the two brothers, and hurls three bullets from du Pont's pistol into Dave's body, with fatal results.
The script doesn't state these issues outright, counting instead on the utterly remarkable performances of the film's leading men to carry these unspoken hurts and angers into the film. Carell has arguably the flashiest role of the three, with its vocal and physical requirements, and with its patina of presenting a well-regarded comic actor "like you've never seen him before." There has already been some backlash indicating that the performance is really an achievement for the makeup team rather than the actor, and indeed, Carell is able to supplant the audience's comic assumptions here much easier than he would have been without the close-cropped gray hair, small nasty-looking teeth, liver-spotted eyebrow-less forehead and hawklike nose (which adds to the absurdity of du Pont requesting to be referred to by his men not as Mr. du Pont, but as "Eagle" or "Golden Eagle," as he claims his likely non-existent friends do). But Carell also alters his general physical carriage, creating a man whose above-it-all body language seems just a bit too rehearsed, and whose speechifying manner of conversation reflects an individual who is used to talking, but not so much listening. After his mother's death, when the walls of his insanity begin to close in, du Pont virtually foregoes speech entirely, and Carell's dead eyes and mouth, twisted into a lock-jawed snarl, alternately offer a caricature of the wounded blue blood in extremis and a Boschian mask of unstated anguish and madness. Ruffalo, by contrast, moves with an off-handed stealthiness, shuffle-bouncing along on the balls of his feet, his arms forever poised to lock into a grapple, as if wrestling is so much a part of this man that he carries its lessons with him even in repose. The actor's usual long-boned lankiness has here compressed into a squat, compact muscularity that perfectly suits the character, and he makes the most of his naturally light, reedy speaking voice to paint Dave Schultz, a still much-beloved figure in the international wrestling community, as the kind of man who never imposes himself and never has to, the kind of man who speaks much less than du Pont, but says much more than him when he does.
In a film where the physical presence and movement of characters is obviously so central to its affect, it's Channing Tatum who carries the day, putting on a masterclass in the art of acting without the benefit of grand speeches or memorable dialogue. Mark Schultz is a man whose hatreds, frustrations and desires have been long suppressed, and this inner tension is manifested in a tight jaw, a heavily lidded stare salted with incipient physical assault, and a speaking style that is slow and ineloquent at its best. Tatum buries his considerable movie-star charisma within the frame of this damaged man, paradoxically hulking yet diminished; he doesn't move with his brother's catlike lightness, instead lumbering into rooms with his arms hanging dead at his sides, head down as if expecting a verbal dressing-down at any moment. One can tell that the athletic glories that have accrued so naturally to Dave have been for Mark a lifelong war of attrition, one that he is still fighting, with himself and anyone who stands in his way. Tatum deftly conveys Mark's excitement at du Pont's seeming acceptance of him through the gentlest of physical relaxations (even his willingness to appear shirtless before a tuxedo-clad du Pont is a telling physical detail), but any man who regularly punches and slaps himself when he's done wrong has issues that no kind smile can assuage, and when Mark fails himself and du Pont with a heartbreaking championship loss, his self-abuse, culminating in shattering a hotel-room mirror with his head before piteously binging on chocolate cake, steak and fried chicken, is Tatum unleashed, his self-directed wrath terrible and awesome to behold. Academy voters frequently devalue the nature of the physical in creating a memorable character, relying on speeches and scintillating dialogue to remind them that, yes, what they've seen here is ACTING. Tatum is in the somewhat complicated position of being either ready to go up against Carell in the year-end best actor races (where he will find it hard to compete against the perceived total alteration of Carell's being in creating the character of John du Pont) or tangling with Ruffalo in the supporting actor races (where his chances will be damaged by the perception that he really doesn't belong in the supporting race when his character is arguably the film's lead). It's not a difficult choice for me, though: Tatum's performance is Foxcatcher's crowning glory, a masterful, frighteningly eloquent demonstration of the way in which a skilled actor can tell you all you need to know about a character through his body, his face and his eyes. When Tatum stares at Carell in the film's later scenes with the fury of ten thousand demons, you quake at his anger and marvel at the actor's command of his entire instrument. It's my pick for the performance of the year, and I think it should be in the lead actor races alongside Carell.
The final words heard in Foxcatcher are a chant that has become weighted with complex levels of meaning in recent years: "USA! USA!" Bennett Miller's masterful film asks hard-edged questions about the cost of the my-country-uber-alles mentality, the ways in which the drive to be the best can frequently bring out the worst in us, and how money, position, and prestige can't buy you a soul, a heart, a friend, or a conscience. Whether or not audiences will want to see a film with such a clear-eyed yet dark perspective on such weighty subjects remains to be seen. But they should see it. In doing so, they will see themselves in new, painful and painfully necessary ways.
Foxcatcher opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 14.