I did not know anything about the story of John du Pont before seeing Foxcatcher. Now that I know how it ends, all the tensions of the scenes before it have changed. Since this is a matter of public record, I am going to discuss it and issue a SPOILER WARNING to anyone who may want to go in blind like I did. I actually feel as though my impressions of the film have improved in retrospect so it might be worth considering, but it’s your call. You can always watch it twice. (You’re welcome, Sony Pictures Classics.)
John du Pont (Steve Carell) was a wealthy sponsor of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Du Pont was eccentric and perhaps difficult, but he wanted to train Schultz at his Foxcatcher ranch and lead a team to the gold in Seoul 1988. Eventually du Pont hired David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and further frictions ensued. If you look up the case, du Pont died in prison for the crime he committed, and knowing the film is leading up to that gives every relationship in the film, every seemingly innocuous slight, the subtext of a brewing evil.
Foxcatcher is a very mellow, understated movie. It may be on the cusp of mopey drama, but I’ll call it still and experiential. Watching these characters, you absorb their psychology. Nothing is spelled out, but you witness the bonds and rifts forming. Mark starts out enthusiastically committed to du Pont. David joins grudgingly, and ultimately you see du Pont turn on Mark.
There are simple scenes where David is too busy with his wife and kids to extend du Pont more than a courtesy greeting of “Hello.” You would think nothing of that, but given du Pont’s eccentric obsessions, now you can see those unintended slights chipping away at his fragile sanity. Scenes where the Schultzes have a difficult time contributing to the self-hype documentary du Pont is producing now read as perceived betrayals by an unstable du Pont.
The wrestling choreography and technique is really exciting. The film teaches us Olympic style wrestling so that we can feel the tensions in ground holds and turnovers. Of course the wrestling ultimately fades into a backdrop. I am impressed that they actually cauliflowered Tatum and Ruffalo’s ears to fit the roles. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch The Expendables. Randy Couture gives a better explanation than I ever could.
Foxcatcher is indeed a standout vehicle for actors. Much will be made of Carell’s dark turn. His interpretation of the walk and voice of du Pont is fascinating, and I don’t even know how the real du Pont sounded or moved. However, people always seem surprised when a comedian gives a great dramatic performance. Of course they can do both. How many Robin Williamses or Jim Carreys does it take?
Tatum and Ruffalo play extremely sympathetic parts with motivations not often seen in movies. David is a family man. He literally puts his family first, whereas most movie protagonists are driven at all costs. Mark was still competing but he has interesting vulnerabilities and Tatum nails it. I did not recognize Sienna Miller as David’s wife, not because of her appearance but because she’s so focused on her kids and husband, she seems like somebody’s real wife and mom.
It is a bit of a dull and ugly film. I mean, there’s nothing glamorous about this story, but there are some winter landscapes that sure ain’t Fargo. It seems intentionally muted and that kind of wears on you after more than two hours, as I’m sure living it wore on the Schultzes.
I don’t think Foxcatcher is a movie you watch for entertainment. Whether you know the story or not, you can probably tell it feels like kind of a hopeless struggle. There are some outstanding performances to admire and perhaps some answers to be found in exploring the situation. It is a sports movie, but be sure, what makes Foxcatcher compelling is the heavy stuff.