Foxcatcher is a toxic stew of masculine ego, competition, ambition and sibling rivalry filtered through a distinctly American lens. With the red-white-and-blue constantly hovering around the corners of its action, Bennett Miller’s based-on-real-events drama concerns the tumultuous saga of wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), whose lonely, miserable life after winning a 1984 Olympic Gold Medal changes when he’s summoned to the remote, aridly opulent estate of John du Pont (Steve Carell). Heir to one of the country’s great fortunes, and a clearly unhinged wrestling fanatic, Du Pont offers Mark the opportunity to train, at his Foxcatcher Farm, under du Pont’s guidance. Interested in escaping the shadow of his older, more illustrious wrestler brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), and taken with du Pont’s fatherly encouragement and talk of restoring America’s power and pride through sport, Mark agrees. He triumphs at the World Championships under du Pont’s tutelage, and comes to believe that his fortunes have forever changed.
They have, of course. Miller’s ominously dour, wintery aesthetics – as well as the oppressive silence that encases so many of his protracted conversational scenes – leave little doubt that doom awaits Mark, du Pont and Dave, the last of whom eventually, and reluctantly, agrees to join Mark as a coach at Foxcatcher. By that point Foxcatcher has already begun its descent toward twisted tragedy, which Miller charts with all sorts of acute, telling details that speak to Mark and du Pont’s kindred desires to prove themselves. For Mark, that involves acquiring self-esteem and appreciation through athletic triumph, and for du Pont, it means showing his famed horsewoman mother (Vanessa Redgrave) that he’s not a child to be coddled and controlled. Mark wants to prove he’s a leader, a winner and, most of all, a mighty American male.
With halting speech, closely cropped hair, and a large brow that casts a shadow over his small eyes (characteristics also possessed by Tatum), Carell portrays du Pont as an alien studying a fascinating foreign race he hopes to join – no surprise that his other pastime is bird-watching. It’s a subtly layered performance, full of outward mannerisms that cast him as creepy, but underscored by a deeper, warped longing for acceptance as a respected and revered mentor-father-figure adult – a status that briefly seems achievable via his relationship with Mark, and then turns more elusive as their friendship is strained by failures, manipulation, and substance abuse.
To its detriment, Foxcatcher doesn’t address the fact that, no matter his other crazed hang-ups, the real du Pont was also a paranoid schizophrenic – a key omission that undercuts its otherwise assured conception of the character. Nonetheless, the film’s air of chilly menace is as meticulously crafted as its psychological portraits. Bald and bespecled, Ruffalo brings both a hunched brawniness and prickly dignity to Dave, who becomes caught in a figurative tug-of-war with Du Pont for Mark’s loyalty and affection. The film’s true star, however, is Tatum. Boasting a stilted gait that morphs into ferocious swiftness on the mat, and exuding a gnawing hunger for admiration and self-actualization, Tatum embodies Dave with a weighty mixture of regret, resentment, and determination, all of it tied up in the very same notions of American strength and manhood that plague du Pont, who goes by the nickname “Golden Eagle” and complains when an army vehicle he’s purchased is missing a machine gun.
A nightmarish fantasia about flawed men futilely attempting to find and define themselves through knotty physical and emotional bonds (epitomized by an early, nurturing scene of Mark and Dave silently warming up and practicing), Foxcatcher proves a precise, potent powerhouse about individual and national macho insecurities.