A consummately eerie film about capitalism, delusion, and obsession, Foxcatcher finds director Bennett Miller merging the homoerotic, opportunistic exploits of Capote’s lead character with the insular sports-world insights of Moneyball. If viewed as part of a trilogy that critiques American institutions (be they the sphere of New York’s literati or the age-old fraternity of MLB favoritism), this would be the bleak ghost story of the group, constantly referencing our nation’s forefathers while depicting a recent past wherein “patriotism” is a slice of twisted hyperbole.
After a credits sequence with archival footage shot on the titular farm, a sprawling Pennsylvania estate owned by the dirty-rich du Pont family, Foxcatcher proper begins with wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) speaking at a school, preaching to stoic kids the hallowed value of the Olympic gold medal around his neck. Like a conflicted soldier home from war, Mark looks strained in his attempt to sell the idea that there’s true meaning behind his 1984 win, which was paired with another gold garnered by his wrestler brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). In the next scene, the audience gets a sense of what Mark’s post-win life is like: Big Mac lunches in parked cars and ramen-noodle dinners in low-income squalor.
Things turned out differently for Dave, who always had more wrestling success than his brother, and who found contentment in suburbia with his wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller), and their young children. The separation of Dave and Mark’s parents in the brothers’ youth hit Mark especially hard, leaving lasting abandonment issues that have made him a kettle on perpetual boil. He’s impressionable, hypersensitive, and desperate for validation, so he’s all too happy to oblige when John du Dont (Steve Carell) summons him to live on the Foxcatcher ranch, where John is realizing his goal of training a wrestling team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The multimillionaire, who looks like a bewildered shark thanks to Carell’s facial prosthetics and dead-eyed contacts, is the one most often prattling on about patriotism, which he views as the driving force behind his amateur coaching interests (in his mind, athletes like Mark and warriors that fought on the historic du Pont grounds are, so to speak, on a level field).
Accepting a handsome sum that Dave, whom Mark urges to join, initially declines, Mark guzzles down John’s Kool-Aid, becoming the poster boy for the eccentric man-child’s overblown hobby, and, in his need for father, mentor, and friend, the Scott Thorson to his Liberace. It’s baldly evident that John’s coaching initiative is a way of vicariously reviving his own athletic pursuits, which were squelched by a conservative mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who favored equestrianism, but it’s also clear that it’s at least visually sating John’s other reported desires, which Foxcatcher need not overplay to add to its story’s dense tapestry.
The relationship is never seen to be anything beyond platonic, but Mark more or less settles in as John’s adoring, coke-snorting, torso-baring house boy, having well absorbed the propagandized backstory of Du Pont, the chemical company financing his supposed path to glory (when Dave and Nancy first visit, Mark scolds Nancy for not properly greeting John, “the most generous man in America”). So complete is Mark’s blind faith that he doesn’t flinch when John orders a military tank for sport (“It was supposed to have a machine gun,” John complains), or when John walks out of target practice and enters the wrestling gym with a pistol, firing it into the ceiling while getting pumped for the endgame in Seoul.
Of Miller’s many directorial feats, his canniest is his depiction of the precariousness of bonds, and how those bonds can shift, drastically yet almost imperceptibly. Often conveyed without words, this theme is first expressed in an early scene wherein Mark and Dave warm up for a training session in a lonely gym. With a soundtrack consisting of nothing but the squeaks of sneakers and slaps of flesh, Miller choreographs a primal ballet of bodies, with gentle, brotherly bear hugs evolving into brute maneuvers, until Dave is suddenly tasting blood from a hit he takes to the nose. Given the arc of the fact-based film, which climaxes with John’s murder of Dave (the motive could be jealousy, mania, or both), the scene practically encapsulates the plot, not to mention the inevitable shattering of Mark and John’s connection. Still, it’s a moment among dozens made great by Miller and D.P. Greig Fraser, who keenly collaborate to maintain a muted aura of gorgeous gloom.
Working from a sparing script by E. Max Frye and Capote scribe Dan Futterman, Miller also puts great trust in his actors. Playing a man who eventually compromises his morals in the name of money, taking part in a preposterous enterprise funded by the bottomless pockets of a schizo Peter Pan, Ruffalo proves, as usual, to be a force of humane balance on screen. Acting against type, Carell communicates his character’s nuanced, slippery slope of sanity, yet his work rarely seems to transcend that of his crack makeup team, making it admittedly tough to discern who’s chiefly responsible for the transformation. Tatum, meanwhile, finally finds a role that melds his grand physicality with the vulnerable nature he’s always shown as an actor whose insta-stardom has been his training. Foxcatcher’s most bracing moments belong to him. Mark’s outburst of tears at the thought of disappointing John is a jolting glimpse into the character’s soul; his trashing of a hotel room amid the agony of defeat is steeped in tragic rage; and his ultimate destination as a UFC fighter, locked in a cage while fans scream “USA!” is a haunting reflection of what his notion of patriotism becomes.