In “Capote” and “Moneyball,” Bennett Miller gazed into the souls of real-life American iconoclasts launching bold and unexpectedly costly new enterprises, a theme that the director has now taken to powerfully disturbing extremes in his great, brooding true-crime saga “Foxcatcher.” Chronicling the events leading up to the 1996 murder of Dave Schultz, the Olympic wrestling champion who tragically found the wrong benefactor in the Pennsylvania multimillionaire John E. du Pont, this insidiously gripping psychological drama is a model of bleak, bruising, furiously concentrated storytelling, anchored by exceptional performances from Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and an almost unrecognizable Steve Carell. Perhaps the sole credible awards-season heavyweight to have emerged from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Nov. 14 Sony Classics release should land with major impact among serious-minded moviegoers, as well as a possible cross-section of Tatum and Carell fans who don’t mind a dramatic change of pace.
Despite its hefty 134-minute running time, “Foxcatcher” doesn’t have an ounce of the proverbial narrative fat: If the screenplay, by Dan Futterman (“Capote”) and E. Max Frye, is relatively spare in terms of dialogue, it’s satisfyingly rich and thorny in its conception of the tightly wound triangle at its center, while Miller’s direction evinces the same sustained intensity and consummate control of his material that defined his first two features. Crucially, this meticulously researched picture feels as authentic in its understanding of character as it does in its unvarnished re-creation of the world of Olympic sports in the late ’80s; rarely onscreen has the art of wrestling, centered around the violent yet intimate spectacle of men’s bodies in furious collision, provided so transfixing a metaphor for the emotional undercurrents raging beneath the surface.
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The film begins and ends on Mark Schultz, played by Tatum with the perpetual frown and painfully inarticulate speech of a man who, despite having won a gold medal for wrestling at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, has been made to feel like an underachiever for much of his life. Stuck in a glum cycle of training by day, eating ramen by night and doing the occasional speaking engagement in between, Mark has long lived in the shadow of his older, more gregarious brother, Dave (Ruffalo), a devoted family man who’s had an enviable wrestling career (the Schultzes remain the only American brothers in history to have both won Olympic and world championships).
Yet to define their relationship in terms of sibling rivalry would be reductive, given the tender and complicated portrait of fraternal love that emerges. Dave has been looking out for Mark since their parents split when they were young boys, and the film proves particularly attentive to the fact that their regular wrestling practice provides a natural physical outlet for their occasional bouts of aggression. And so, when Mark receives an out-of-the-blue invitation from du Pont (Carell) to come train as part of a national U.S. wrestling team preparing for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, he instinctively asks his brother to join him. Dave, however, is unwilling to uproot his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids, leaving Mark to strike out on his own and move onto du Pont’s Valley Forge-adjacent, helicopter-accessible estate.
While the house’s sprawling grounds are undeniably impressive, including a long-running horse-racing operation known as Foxcatcher Farm, it’s du Pont (Carell) who really gets the viewer’s attention. Sporting pale, lightly freckled skin, near-invisible eyebrows and a large prosthetic nose, Carell doesn’t look anything like himself — nor, for that matter, does he sound much like himself, delivering his speech in slow, stilted dribs and drabs, the somewhat nasal register barely concealing an edge of steel. We’re right to be wary: For all the money, perks (including cocaine) and declarations of gratitude that du Pont lavishes on Mark, who responds with all the loyalty of a love-starved puppy, one immediately senses something unhealthy, even sinister, about this curious entrepreneur and his unusually controlling nature.
The warning signs begin to add up at an alarming rate: du Pont’s refusal to ease up on the relentless training regimen he imposes on Mark and the other wrestlers; his gaseous invocations of American patriotism and honor as the reasons for his pursuit of Olympic glory; his delusional belief that he can all but singlehandedly save U.S. wrestling; his disquieting love of firearms; and, not least of all, the dangerously soft tenor of his voice when he doesn’t get what he wants. And what he wants, more than anything, is for Mark to persuade his smarter, more seasoned brother Dave to join Team Foxcatcher.
How this eventually transpires is ultimately less fascinating than what comes afterward, as the widely cheered arrival of Dave and his family — to the chagrin of Mark, who finds himself in danger of being upstaged by this semi-prodigal son — lends the entire scenario the quiet dread of a ticking time bomb. Moving from team training sessions to the 1988 Olympic trials, where Mark’s seething resentment gets the better of him on the mat, the picture builds a slow-motion tragedy of astounding psychological acuity and narrative tension. And as Mark’s personal and professional freefall forces Dave to play the mediator, du Pont seems to retreat ever further into his own private cave; he becomes increasingly contemptuous of anyone who tries to thwart him, even as he comes to realize the essential hollowness of the beloved mentor-figure persona he’s created for himself.
What we’re left with, then, is an acrid, anguished commentary on the temptations of wealth, the abuse of power and the downside of the human drive for success, as well as a picture that, in setting a cold-blooded account of a true crime in the world of competitive sports, retains a faint narrative kinship with both “Capote” and “Moneyball.” But any lessons we’re meant to glean from “Foxcatcher” ultimately pale next to the strange, specific and singularly haunting experience of the movie itself as it moves, with inexorable momentum, toward its stark, brutal climax.
In setting up their finale, Miller and his collaborators don’t make the mistake of overanalyzing their villain’s motives, trusting Carell’s subtly mesmerizing work to carry the burden of credibility. (Still, du Pont’s peculiar, difficult relationship with his mother, played by a primly disapproving Vanessa Redgrave, is certainly open to Freudian interpretations.) Yet while Carell may deliver the most transformative turn here, it’s merely one of three supremely accomplished performances that connect thrillingly onscreen.
Always at his best when he can bring his intense physicality to bear on a role (“Magic Mike”), Tatum delivers what is easily the most emotionally complex performance of his career, hulking through much of the picture exuding rage, surliness and disappointment, qualities that recede only during Mark’s brief honeymoon period with du Pont. And although he’s 12 years older than the role calls for, Ruffalo is wonderful as the big-hearted, salt-of-the-earth Dave, always ready (sometimes to a fault) to stand in the gap and defend those he loves.
In addition to the great brotherly rapport these two actors achieve here, they spent months learning to wrestle and absorbing the Schultz brothers’ signature moves; as choreographed by Jesse Jantzen, their bouts and stunts here are superbly convincing, shot in clean, long takes that allow viewers a clear sense of bodies in motion. These scenes are themselves deftly integrated into a finely detailed portrait of the wrestling community (with appearances by real-life wrestlers including a cameo by Mark Schultz himself) that fascinates in and of itself, from a shot of the athletes standing in lines to weigh themselves, to a scene of Mark frantically peddling a stationary bike in a last-ditch attempt to drop several pounds.
After the flat, brown prairies of “Capote” and the ugly backrooms of “Moneyball,” Miller here confirms his stature as a poet of plain-looking America, bringing us into a humdrum world of hotel rooms, locker rooms and school auditoriums. Warm, bright colors have been leached almost entirely from d.p. Greig Fraser’s muted, wintry images and from Jess Gonchor’s subtly ’80s production design; Rob Simonsen’s score is spare and beautifully ominous, while the exceptional sound work often alternates feverish background noise with silence to highly unsettling effect.