by Paul Deines
In his first two narrative films, director Bennett Miller focused on visionary men who risked sanity and reputation to undertake great projects, a book or a baseball team. His new release, Foxcatcher, which has been in development for almost a decade, is also about ambitious men. It’s also a portrait of mental illness, a platform for three big performances and a critique of American exceptionalism.
Miller and cowriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman are dramatizing the real life story of emotionally disturbed industrial chemical scion John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell) and his strange association with Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). In the late 1980s and 1990s, du Pont bankrolled and coached a wrestling program at his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm, where he invited the Schultz brothers (already medaled Olympians) to live. The film explores the unhealthy triangle the three men formed, and while I won’t spoil anything (though a simple Google search will) I’ll say this all ends tragically.
Much of the press surrounding Foxcatcher focuses on Steve Carell’s portrayal of du Pont, and his performance definitely dominates the film. Accounts of the real man describe a not-so-hard-to-diagnose paranoid schizophrenic who ranted and accused and thought he was a messiah. Carell and the filmmakers make du Pont less raving and more disconnected. He’s been simultaneously shunned by society for his off-putting personality and indulged for his wealth. Carell has several horrifying moments where he attempts to stand before his wrestlers and expound as a leader. These are pathetic and unsettling, and I was reminded of Carell’s most famous delusional: Michael Scott. Du Pont in Foxcatcher is Scott without empathy. He is lonely and need, but cannot relate to other humans. In one fantastically odd moment with Tatum’s Mark Schultz, he manages a fairly heartfelt bit of encouragement (“…you are not just David Schultz’ younger brother…”) and then encourages Mark, as his friend, to call him “Eagle or Golden Eagle.” I laughed, then I clammed up.
Anyway, Carell is quite good, but I’d have been more struck by his performance if he weren’t covered in a ton of latex and greasepaint. Carell apparently spent hours studying du Pont’s mannerisms in preparation for the role, but Bennett has encased him in a veritable death-mask to the point where his character choices are totally obscured.
Mark Schultz is a kindred spirit for du Pont. Channing Tatum also transforms himself physically, with his cheeks puffed out and his posture stooped, always one beat from a wrestler’s crouch. He mumbles and rarely meets another character’s eyes. Their relationship seems at times like two unpopular schoolkids. Other times, Mark looks like du Pont’s manservant. There’s drug-use and gun play. Also, the implication of sexual assault. These passages are captivating, a portrait of two damaged men feeding each other’s insecurities and worst aggressive impulses.
Still, I think the standout performance is Mark Ruffalo’s. As David Schultz he finds a subdued combination of tenderness and drive. David wants to be the best, and he wants the best for all around him. Soft-spoken yet forceful, empathetic but uncompromising, his magnetism places him in conflict with both his brother and du Pont. In one a magnificent scene, David is asked to praise du Pont before a film-camera, and he simply cannot do it.
Mark’s relationship with David is nearly as corrosive as with relationship with du Pont. The film opens with an extended wrestling practice involving the brothers. Shot in wide with no soundtrack save the squeaking of feet on the mat, the sparring is brutal and tender. Blood is drawn, bodies wrap around each other, and without words we understand this relationship. Later, David officiously helps Mark drop 12 pounds in a couple hours. He acts protective of Mark even as he is essentially torturing him. This marginally unhealthy relationship primes Mark to fall into something far more sinister at Foxcatcher Farm.
It’s this link between accomplishment and violence, self-actualization and self-destruction, glory and decimation that is Miller’s theme. The film ends with a chant of “USA … USA … USA.” What does this mean? That our national drive for greatness is pathological. Bennett explores this in a film of ominous shadows, cold light and long agonized silences. Foxcatcher is praiseworthy as a visionary artistic achievement, but it’s a slog. The film stuck with me; that does not mean I’ll revisit it anytime soon.