The characters of “Foxcatcher” act as a somewhat grotesque portrait of America. Channing Tatum plays a hulking, brutish mass who is really just a lost puppy looking to please. Mark Ruffalo plays a compassionate, tender and measured leader for which things don’t go as planned. And Steve Carell, in a villainous, sinister turn, is transformed into a wealthy, privileged and cold man of delusion.
That director Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Moneyball”) has packaged them all into a tense, skin crawling thriller and sports movie says something about how rooted American culture is in these institutions.
“Foxcatcher” tells the story of Mark Schultz (Tatum), an Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1984 Olympics for wrestling. Three years later, he’s poor, pathetic and miserable. Living alone in a dirty apartment, he eats ramen noodles while his gold medal sits idly on a rickety shelf. He drives a junker of a car to an elementary school to speak on why his medal is an important symbol for America, but the principal cutting his check looks at him with the same blank face as the fourth graders in this half-filled auditorium.
His brother Dave (Ruffalo) is much more successful and famous, despite having won the same medal as Mark. In a hypnotically physical display, Mark and Dave display their brotherly dynamic. As they warm-up and scrimmage, Dave seems to nuzzle his brother’s joints and embrace him lovingly before their wrestling turns aggressive and violent. DP Greig Frazier films in tightly focused long takes that keep the audience in Miller’s chokehold.
But when Mark gets a mysterious phone call presenting him a great training opportunity for the 1988 Olympic games, he’s quicker to leave his present life than his older brother.
The benefactor is John du Pont (Carell), heir to the massive chemical company of the same name with an immensely wealthy estate. Du Pont gives Mark the chance to train at his facilities and lead a team of other wrestlers to go to the World Championship and ’88 Olympics, seducing him with his wealth but also his platitudes of American ideals and greatness. Beneath a demonic prosthetic nose, du Pont breathes heavily, and Carell tempers his words to give every moment a sterile tension.
Mark would go on to win the World Championship, but his complex relationship with du Pont would destroy him. In a striking transition, we see Mark sporting longer, bleached hair closer to du Pont’s style. Mark begins helping du Pont train for 50+ wrestling classes, further deepening du Pont’s delusions. And when Mark gives the team a day off from wrestling, du Pont shatters his spirit with a brisk slap to the face. It’s remarkable to see how this beastly champion falls, getting so bad that Channing Tatum hardly says a word in the film’s last half hour. But he does have one of the film’s most memorable moments, bashing his head into a mirror repeatedly in a violent display of force.
“Foxcatcher” mostly works on its surface level tension and story. Miller gives the film the same calculated, cold style he gave “Moneyball”, making it a film of values and morals more so than sports. But the film’s abrupt, shocking ending has a big enough impact as to send home Miller’s cynical view of the American dream. “Foxcatcher” is a film of violence, ambition, deceit and delusion, and it’s an American vision that feels all too familiar.
3 ½ stars