It’s a sad, strange story, and it’s hard to believe it’s true: FOXCATCHER is a tale of three men– two Olympic wrestling brothers, and the very rich man who covets them. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play Mark and Dave Schultz who won Olympic gold medals in wrestling, Dave also acting as trainer to his younger brother Mark. Enter Steve Carell as John E. du Pont heir to the du Pont chemical fortune who envisions his estate as the home and new training center for the US Olympic wrestling team headed to the 1988 Games in Seoul– with himself as head coach. There’s a power struggle a brewin’ and these three actors directed by the savvy Bennett Miller who has a way with true stories (MONEYBALL, CAPOTE) and Oscar nominees (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill) once again applies his laser eye for character to one of the weirdest and most compelling true stories ever dramatized.
For their first meeting, Mr. du Pont has plucked Mark Schultz from his lower middle class environs, flown him to his mansion on Foxcatcher Farm, and corners him on the couch in his trophy-strewn den. The younger Schultz brother is the prey in this seduction and a more unappealing suitor could hardly be found. The first time the prosthetically enhanced, eagle-beaked, dead-eyed Steve Carell enters the picture as the peculiar Mr. du Pont– we know this guy is trouble. When he opens his mouth to talk, we see the tiny discolored teeth, hear that odd, halting, barely human cadence, and we want to head for the hills. As he sits in his White House on the hill, shrinking beneath his elderly mother’s glassy stare (Vanessa Redgrave at her chilliest), Mr. du Pont has been incubating a vision. He sees himself as a leader of men, a giver of hope, and he proposes officially sponsoring the Schultz brothers in their continued quest for Olympic Gold. Though he knows almost nothing about wrestling– which his mother has witheringly dismissed as a “low” sport–he also sees himself as not only head coach, but also mentor, father, and all-powerful oz. No offense Captain Hook, but Steve Carell has transformed John du Pont into the creepiest creep in the world– and has simultaneously launched his own career into the stratosphere. It’s an otherworldly and uncommonly committed performance.
When Mark asks his older brother Dave to join them in forming “Team Foxcatcher,” Dave asks THE question– what’s du Pont getting out of all of this; they will all wrestle with the answers in the course of the film. No matter what du Pont claims, he is a giant void looking to fill himself up, and Dave, instinctively his adversary, is everything that DuPont is not: grounded, gifted, and comfortable in his skin. He thrives on the easy, solid human relationships he’s formed, first as big brother and surrogate father to Mark when they were abandoned as children, and now as a loving husband and father to his wife (Sienna Miller) and rambunctious kids. Ruffalo is perfectly cast in this role, his quiet confidence, intelligence, and warmth layered on a thickened frame, as he carefully maintains his footing while sizing up an advancing predator. Ruffalo is better at conveying a dizzying confluence of emotions all at once, than just about any other actor I can think of. Just watch the scene where Dave is asked to record a video tribute to du Pont and twists himself into an ethical pretzel trying to figure out how not to lie, while keeping his bread buttered.
Channing Tatum uses his physical mass and innate athleticism to convey Mark’s deep-seated vulnerability; du Pont uses Mark’s natural competitiveness to drive a wedge between the brothers. His jaw tight and his feelings constrained by monosyllables, Mark seems locked in and ready to explode. He exudes enormous power and pain, and as such is the emotional fulcrum of the movie, bearing the weight of the struggle between du Pont and Dave. It’s another leap in Tatum’s career suggesting skill and depth until now barely tapped.
At the beginning of the movie, we see two figures wrestling in close up– Mark and what turns out to be a practice dummy. (My wrestling consultants assure me that all of these scenes are utterly authentic to the sport.) When brother Dave steps in and the two move through a sweaty, exhausting routine, upending each other wordlessly, the scene signals the struggle to come, and the rhythm of a real life flesh and blood connection; it’s a connection that the stunted and lonely du Pont, cut off from normal contact by his wealth and a cadre of sycophants, and his apparent lack of nurturing and any real skills–must have craved and eventually begrudges.
I wish I hadn’t known how this story ended, because I wouldn’t have seen it coming–in the way that real life can suddenly flip you on your back. And perhaps the movie’s foreshadowing only seems heavy-handed if you know the real story–which actually disappeared rather quickly from the news. The news now is that these three actors form the most complex and engrossing menage onscreen this season, and may prove unbeatable in Los Angeles this February at the 2015 Games known as the Oscars.