Though focussed on wrestling and named for an equestrian sport, Foxcatcher adopts the motions of a marathon runner. The pace is steady and unyielding. There are no sudden “a-ha” moments to throw things for a loop; each shift in its dramatic playing field is slowly, methodically built up to. Foxcatcher is an exercise in control and composure. If you’re into its rhythm from the first moment, you’ll be spellbound by it to the last. Find yourself following along even slightly off the precise pace director Bennett Miller moves at, and Foxcatcher, fittingly, becomes a little harder to pin down.
Based on true events, the film opens in 1987. In just three years, Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) has gone from gold medal glory, to addressing half-filled elementary school auditoriums for $20 a pop. More humiliating than the bored looks the kids give him is the fact that he’s acting as a replacement role model. It’s his older brother, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who the school was after, and most other people want to associate with. A fellow gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, Dave got the charisma, smarts, and raw talent in the family; Mark got the stable hairline and overbite.
With Dave and his family about to movie across the country, Mark is taken under the wing of John du Pont (Steve Carrel), an old money multimillionaire. To hear him tell it, John is also an ornithologist, philatelist, and patriot. A fan of wrestling, despite the upper crust tradition of horseback riding in his family, du Pont brings Mark to his Foxcatcher estate, a Pennsylvanian Xanadu, to train for the approaching Seoul Olympics.
As Scorsese did with The Wolf of Wall Street last year, Miller leans heavily into the animal imagery of his eccentric ‘80s capitalist, and the people he ensnares. Du Pont nicknames himself Eagle, but the enormous prosthetic beak on Carrel is where the resemblance ends. Du Pont is convinced he can jockey Mark as a coach, and ride his coattails to glory, but if Mark’s pronounced jawline and protruding, cauliflower ears make him reminiscent of any particular beast, it’s a mule, not a thoroughbred.
Tatum’s been so good for so long at proving he’s not a Neanderthal lunkhead that it’s almost a shock to see how good he is at portraying the preconception. Mark, a college-graduate for his skills in the ring alone, is the kind of guy who’s just smart enough to know what it feels like to be insecure about your intelligence. Tatum’s got charisma to spare, but it’s choked out to make room for all the anger and sadness needed to fill a guy as big as Mark. If Foxcatcher’s got a heart, it’s somewhere inside Mark, though Miller does his damndest to portray the real life tragedy that would befall the Schultz family with the cold remove of an autopsy.
There’s a stifling airlessness to the entirety of Foxcatcher that’s initially off-putting, but lends itself well to a story of desperately lonely men. The Schultz boys are the kind of brothers that embrace with gable grips instead of hugs, and Mark’s fraternal inferiority complex pairs with John’s need to prove himself to his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) as well as John’s need for love as an industrialist is matched by Mark’s desire for respect as an athlete. Once Dave reenters the picture as the new keystone to du Pont’s dream of wrestling domination, Foxcatcher reworks the pairings until each man reaches a breaking point.
The wealth and ambition of du Pont recall manipulative magnates like Charles Foster Kane (though Tatum gets the big room wrecking scene here, not Carrel). But whenever he opens his mouth, the pathetic little boy hiding beneath du Pont’s liver spots always makes himself known. Whether it’s Carrel’s nasal delivery (perhaps a byproduct of the fake schnoz), or du Pont’s interest in revolutionary memorabilia, there’s a lot more affectation defining the man than there is to Mark and Dave. Tasked with being the most dynamic corner of Miller’s psychologically taught triangle, du Pont doesn’t measure up to his protégés, both in characterization, and performance.
Business and sport synergize effortlessly as the consummate venues for American exceptionalism, and Foxcatcher is directed with the ruthless technique needed to succeed in either. Miller handles every scene with icy efficiency, even as the script indulges in long pauses and verbal cul-de-sacs to highlight the awkward ways small men try to present themselves as giants. The compositions made possible by the expanse of Foxcatcher Estate are often striking, but it’s the muted wrestling sequences that really stun, as they seem the only times Miller ever comes close to cutting loose.
That he never does is a testament to Miller’s discipline, but it’s hard not to chafe under such a strict, regimented approach to the material. In a film landscape awash with great pictures about waning American empire, Foxcatcher needed to go deeper, or broader to push itself over the top. As is, Foxcatcher makes for a darkly entertaining work of directorial precision that features two terrific performances, and one that wants to be. It’s a technically accomplished blend of sports drama and tabloid true crime that’s cool to the touch – mesmerizingly so most of the time, frustratingly so the rest.
Often mesmerizing and occasionally frustrating, Foxcatcher is an accomplished blend of sports-themed drama and tabloid true crime that’s cool to the touch.