'Foxcatcher' Is a True Story About a False World

by Bill Gibron

17 December 2014

For his third film based on true material, Bennett Miller tells a tale of how when wealth and Olympian athleticism mix together, those living in those worlds become increasingly insulated.
 
cover art

Foxcatcher

Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Steve Carrel, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall

(Annapurna)
US theatrical: 12 Dec 2014
UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2015
2014

While it doesn’t seem possible, the worlds of the richest 1% and the lives of Olympic athletes are frighteningly the same. The wealthy live in a bubble, cocooned by cash and cared for by a litany of assistants hoping to gain a small sliver the greenback-tinged limelight for themselves. There’s no connection to the real world, no interaction with the unwashed masses. Money provides the buffer, and the more of it you have, the bigger the barrier becomes. It seduces. It soothes. It schemes.

These facts are the same for Olympians. Physically gifted and able to maximize their performance under pressure, they too live an isolated, insular life. For them, each day centers on training, each week another step closer to a goal few others will ever be able to achieve. Even if they win and take home the top prize, they remain closed off. Sometimes, from the jealousy of others; most times, however, from the need to continue their conditioning for the next big event. Ability provides the buffer. The more you have, the less you need from the rest of society.

When these worlds eventually collided, they did so with a shocking blast of gunfire and a load of questions. When the smoke cleared, Olympic champion David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) was dead, and demented “industrialist” John DuPont (Steve Carrell) was holding onto the gun. Nowhere to be found was the former’s baby brother Mark (Channing Tatum), originally hired by the latter to be his point man in a surreal personal desire to become the spiritual (and financial) sponsor and coach of the US Men’s Wrestling Team. For a while, DuPont’s plan worked. But when the truth about his abilities and the strange sports farm system he started on the family’s Foxcatcher estate finally came to light, not only was it stranger than any fiction, but it ended up turning deadly.

For his third film based on true material, Bennett Miller (of Moneyball and Capote fame) digs deep beneath the surface of both of these secluded situations, finding the truth inside each and every one of these closed-off communities. For the Schultzes, their existence revolves around sweaty gyms, used floor mats, and careful diet. While David has found a way to work outside the cyclical push of competition, Mark is lost. It’s interesting to see the duplicity Miller manages. Mark gets two checks during the course of this film: one is for $20 and the other is for $10,000. That’s how rapidly things change with DuPont in charge. One moment, Mark is droning through an speech in front of some bored school children. The next, he’s snorting coke with DuPont in his private helicopter.

It’s the lure of money which catches Mark, and initially, David denounces this. He claims he can never be bought, only to turn around and take up DuPont’s offer when the potential pay grows exponentially. Living on the estate, being handed anything they need with the flick of a wrist, the Schultzes are seduced. That’s Foxcatcher‘s in. There’s even inferences that DuPont was buying more than gold medals from Mark. There’s a surreal scene where a semi-clothed Tatum answers Carell’s late night call for “wrestling practice in the house”, the idea being that only something sexual would take there, not in the much more mundane Foxcatcher training facility. Oddly, the movie never pursues this path, perhaps because Mark is still out there, available to contradict such conjecture.

One clearly gets a perverted vibe from DuPont, however. As played by Carell, he is constantly sizing up those in his presence. A lifetime of privilege has turned him into an oddity, a freak in his own secluded sideshow. He tries to buy power and prominence (he claims to be many things, including a bird watching expert and a philanthropist) but the minute his dying mother (a terrific and underused Vanessa Redgrave) enters a room, he literally shrinks. She’s the true titan in the family, her love of horses constantly overshadowing her son’s best efforts. Even when Mark wins the World Championships, bringing legitimacy to DuPont’s efforts, she undermines everything he accomplishes with a single statement-like act.

As DuPont’s growing paranoia and instability become increasingly menacing, things get more compact and compartmentalized. Carell doesn’t play him as a villain, just a man drifting ever closer to an obsession that will lead to murder. Thanks to the cold and calculated way in which Miller handles the build-up, we aren’t overcome with telltale signs. Instead, just as in real life, DuPont simply drives his car to Dave’s home on the estate, confronts him with a calm question, and then puts two bullets in his back. Even more interesting, we don’t get much of Mark’s reaction. Instead, we see DuPont being captured by the police, followed by the standard true story text-based wrap up.

The acting, across the board, is stellar. Carell and Ruffalo have the flashier roles as killer and victim, but it’s Tatum who steals the movie from his capable co-stars. He is a wrestler, walking like they do and treating their body as they do. There’s several sequences where, out of the blue, his Mark Schultz starts practicing moves, be they overhand tosses or simply duck and shoots. Tatum does them with such skill that his awkwardness outside of the wrestling ring is all the more understandable. Mark is the glue, the guy who gave DuPont hope, and in turn, more than likely got him his brother, and then got his brother killed. Considering the other actors he had to work with, Tatum takes them both to school.

In the end, Foxcatcher feels indifferent and insular because that’s the world these men lived in. It’s a fantastic movie, filled with fantastic work on both sides of the lens, but it doesn’t lend itself to the kind of catharsis we expect from such stories. Instead, like the universe it exists it, it stays locked within the bubble. While not impenetrable, it’s strange and slightly surreal. Just like the events that took place there, and the movie made of same.

Foxcatcher

Rating:

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