“I am a patriot,” Says John du Pont (Steve Carell). “And I want to see this country soar again.” He appears less optimistic than odious when he declares himself to the wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). The younger man watches from across the du Pont trophy room, surrounded by cases and shelves and oversized furniture. It’s the middle of the day in rural Pennsylvania, on John’s family estate, and yet the room is dark, the sunlight straining to make it through looming, heavy windows.
Still, during this early scene in Foxcatcher, the movie titled after that estate, Mark listens carefully to the man who would be his patron. Mark doesn’t have a lot of context for judging du Pont, and he’s got reason to want to work with him. A 1984 Olympic champion, a gold medal winner along with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), Mark’s spent the past couple of years being poor, training at a grim grey facility in the middle of a snowy nowhere, eating ramen noodles and telling elementary school students how great it is to represent your country. As the camera pans briefly across the kids’ vacant faces, they seem almost a chorus for the scene that follows, when Mark and Dave grunt and embrace, push and tug, the thuds of their bodies on the mat as dull as their grimaces.
Such background sets up for the meeting with John, whose assistant calls to invite Mark for a visit, and whose proposal seems too good to be true. He’s building a first-class 14,000-square-foot compound, he says, and he means to build a winning wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Even if Dave doesn’t want to come with him at first, having a decent family life where he is, Mark figures it’s a chance to be his own man, or at least to be John’s man instead of Dave’s.
This dynamic, sad and unsurprising as it may be, finds a more sinister (and equally unsurprising) parallel in the relationship between John and his mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), who oversees a prize-winning equestrian team at Foxcatcher Farm. Aspiring to please and also to outdo her, John takes up wrestling as the sport he’ll manage. Of course, it’s a lost cause for him to embrace what his mother calls “a low sport”, but John devotes himself to the team, the American flag, and the show of sweaty bodies in competition. John’s effort to serve as trainer for the men he assembles, men who run and train here as a herd, heavily muscled and mostly undifferentiated, is relentlessly pathetic. He knows nothing about wrestling. He’s simultaneously passive and a bully. He tries desperately to be one of them and can never be.
This desperation, the film allows, might be attributable to multiple factors, most unseen. He’s too rich, obviously, too angry, and too silly when it comes to patriotic masculinity as a means to self-define. But if the movie doesn’t dig into any stereotypical sexual tensions that might be read into John or Mark’s antics as men being men, it does allow the bad mother trope to surface at each moment Jean appears on screen, even in the background of a training session put on for her, where she has her caretaker push her wheelchair out the door, the focus not on her but on John noting her dismissal and so, his failure, again.
Foxcatcher reframes John’s trouble with mom as an unreasonable endeavor to control a pack of men, its creepiness increasingly visible in a series of scenes that suggest Mark’s fundamental good will and naiveté (the movie is based on the real Mark Schultz’s book). A couple of moments show his purchase of military surplus weapons (including an armored personnel carrier that he insists should come with a missile launcher), which he keeps on the farm where he houses his wrestlers. However the many wrestlers might think about this remains unknown. The film instead focuses on Mark’s slide into cocaine use and loss of focus on wrestling, on his difficult relationship with Dave, who seems in this version of the story only to be waiting to be shot, earnestly concerned for his brother but oddly oblivious to the very visibly damaged John.
All of this is pathological, from Mark’s desperation to John’s obsession to Dave’s ignorance, however willful in order to support his charming family on a beautiful estate. The movie makes that much clear by its glacial pacing, but also by its distance, in long shots and elegant compositions, in quiet characterizations and spare musical score. In this the film might be of a piece with director Bennett Miller’s previous meditations on the intersections of money and American masculinity. While it takes up how sports might shape these intersections, like Moneyball, the film considers a more dire combination of needs and desires here, like Capote.
But neither John nor Mark is a writer, and none of the three individuals who fall into each other, the brothers or their monstrous mentor, is able to say what’s going wrong, or maybe even know. Foxcatcher does know, however. Mark’s interest in representing is nation is not so different from John’s, and their profound miscomprehension of the so-called values they describe is as chilling as any violence or grief they act out. This might make for an indictment of a much broader system of man-making, but as the movie reinforces some too simple distinctions, between you and people who are not you, it suggests their deviance is the problem, rather than their desperation to fit in.