John du Pont (Steve Carrell with a prosthetic nose) was supposed to ride horses, a regal sport for a regal family — America’s richest dynasty. But he defied his overbearing mother’s (Vanessa Redgrave) wishes, declaring, “horses are stupid!” When we first hear this in Bennett Miller’s new film “Foxcatcher,” it’s not a seven-year-old du Pont whining, but a fifty-year-old overgrown child, speaking to a group of world-class wresters that he’s coerced into training with him on his estate, Foxcatcher farms, for the Olympics. Although “Foxcatcher” is ostensibly a sports movie, complete with training montages and nail-biting championships, it’s also a patiently paced thriller – there’s even a literal Chekhov’s gun – about how money and privilege can buy you almost anything, except, perhaps, real happiness.
The film centres around two Olympic Gold Medalists, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, in a ball of pent up anxiety) and his older brother Dave (a wonderfully warm and bearded Mark Ruffalo), and their dysfunctional relationship with their benefactor John DuPont, who effectively buys their friendship before becoming the author of his own propaganda about how deep that friendship is. Since the brothers’ parents divorced when they were young, Dave effectively raised Mark. Dave has grown up into a proper adult – he runs the local gym, has a wife and kids – while Mark is still treading water, trying to find his place. Mark lives alone, eats alone, and can’t even get a half-empty auditorium of young schoolchildren to care about his achievements. He’s lonely and lost, and that makes him particularly susceptible to du Pont’s advances.
We first meet du Pont when he flies Mark out, by plane and helicopter, to his expansive Foxcatcher estate. Possessing little talent himself, and no real friends – at middle-age, he’s still unwed and living with his mother – du Pont wants the next best thing: to be as close to greatness as he possibly can, and to have complete control over that talent. When du Pont lays out his dreams for Mark, he plays to Mark’s main vulnerability: “We, as a nation, failed to honour you, and that’s a problem, not just for you, but for our society.” He offers Mark a generous salary and his guest house in exchange for coming to Foxcatcher to prepare for the Olympics — he’s to persuade his brother to join, too. Even though Mark dutifully repeats du Pont’s words to Dave like Gospel – he’s so impressionable – his brother remains unswayed: we see his family having a barbecue in the blurry background, and he can’t uproot them.
In the beginning, Mark and du Pont seem to enjoy their new friendship: Mark gets a father figure who, unlike his brother, he’ll never have to compete with, while du Pont feels worthwhile, offering what he can as a coach to Mark. Mark is a keen audience for du Pont’s pontifications, spoken with his head held high in his wheezy, raspy voice. Miller hints at du Pont’s deeply set entitlement by always placing du Pont in throne-like arm-chairs, the prince of his estate, who has bought friends and control with money. An offer of cocaine to Mark may seem like a friendly gesture, but it doesn’t take long for Mark to get addicted, to crave a hit to help deal with du Pont’s self-pity. But he needs du Pont’s money to continue to finance the habit. When du Pont tells Mark his sob story about how his only childhood friend was paid by his mother to spend time with him, he’s unable to see that he’s still doing the same thing. It’s frightening when he cries “GIVE ME THOSE MEDALS!” after a championship, so he can place the spoils of Mark, and his team, in the du Pont family trophy room, claiming them as his own.
Just as Mark’s misery can no longer be contained – du Pont is just as unhappy that his pet isn’t behaving – du Pont is able to persuade Dave to join them, too. To help keep up the happy charade, du Pont also arranges for a film crew to document their training, and most importantly, to document just how important he’s been to the whole process. A speech that du Pont gave Mark to repeat near the beginning of the film, about what a great father figure du Pont is, resurfaces for the film-within-the-film. And there’s a great scene in which the intrinsically good and genuine Dave gets interviewed for the film, unable to muster the praise for du Pont that he’s expected to provide.
Wrestling, for these men, is where the real bonding happens. The first time Mark and Dave greet each other in the film, it’s with a gentle hold, almost like a hug, as they slowly work their way up to blows and competition. Miller highlights the gentle sounds that wrestlers make: feet treading softly on the mats, the blows and blocks that are part of the dance, and the men breathing as they fight. Much of the two-shots of the film are reserved for the wrestling matches, which often unfold in a long uncut take, the handheld camera getting shakier and shakier as the confrontation heats up. A hand on the shoulder, something even Dave can manage to comfort du Pont, is more meaningful than any words they can exchange: there is affection between the men, even if Dave and Mark feel mostly pity and, eventually, disgust, for du Pont.
Miller refuses to go for the cheap thrills, but in so doing, he forgets to give us any thrills: despite its many flaws, at least “Whiplash” brought you with it on its fraught journey, however implausible and absurd it may be. I found myself checking my watch frequently during “Foxcatcher” – this is not slow cinema, and slow cinema can be utterly absorbing – never a good sign for a two-hour film aimed at a mainstream audience. These are not fun characters to be stuck with, not just because they’re juvenile, but because they’re also wholly inarticulate and incapable of emotional depth.
When “Foxcatcher” premiered at Cannes in May, there was much brouhaha about it ushering in an age of Academy Award Winners Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum. While both are good in the film, they’ve been better in other films, largely because they’ve had other parts where they’re given more to play. John du Pont is so emotionally stunted that he can only express petty, childish emotions, which isn’t much to work with. Carrell completely physically transforms, putting on a slight paunch that makes him look wholly unathletic, walking around in hideous running shoes, and speaking in delayed, wheezy breaths, always slightly off the beat. But this is not nearly as emotionally involving or complex as his turn in “Dan in Real Life.” Similarly, Tatum shows great control as another not-quite-adult, full of pent up rage and self-pity mixed with ambition. He was much more complex, nuanced, and interesting in “Magic Mike,” or in “21 Jump Street” when he was showing off his impeccable comic timing. They’re both good here, but just because it’s a “serious” film doesn’t mean these are, by default, their best performances.
It’s Ruffalo who shines brightest in a supporting role. He radiates warmth, whether it’s cuddling his daughter, standing by his wife, standing forehead-to-forehead with his brother in solidarity, or even doing his best to be nice to du Pont. He’s the only real grown up in the film, which means he’s also the only one with real emotional weight. You can see his reluctance to move to Foxcatcher farms, even when he agrees to it. He does it out of obligation to his brother, whom he’s still caring for into adulthood. He’s patient and kind with no use for artifice, nor does he see the point of venerating someone for their wealth: du Pont does not impress him because he can see right through the façade. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is how this decent guy got stuck in the middle of the tangled web of these two selfish people, even more so than the way things end for him, à la Chekhov’s gun.