Director Bennett Miller has already proven that he has the uncanny ability to spin exquisite, immersive, intelligent stories from material that on paper might not seem so appealing—we’ll still never quite get to the bottom of why “Moneyball,” a film about baseball sabermetrics should be so rich and engaging. But with “Foxcatcher,” he has outdone himself, turning his uniquely meticulous eye to a tiny story in a totally rarefied, specific environment and through whatever alchemy he has perfected, created something so universal and resonant that it feels epic, sprawling, almost ancient in its mythic overtones. “Foxcatcher” is an enormous film.
Unfolding slowly and deliberately, in rubber-floored gyms, ugly hotel rooms and chintzy overdecorated parlors and trophy rooms, the film tells the true story of a peculiar, almost absurdist crime: the killing of an ex-Olympic wrestler by a scion of the fabulously wealthy du Pont family. But really “Foxcatcher,” filmed from a brilliantly economical (even at 134 minutes) script by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, is about much grander themes of familial rivalry and ambition, of talent and jealousy and egotism, and of how much we despise the weaknesses in others that we fear we ourselves display. It’s so many things at once and yet none of them is underdeveloped, and as thematically multi-stranded as the story is, tonally and narratively it is totally singleminded: an elegy for the destructive power of the myth of American exceptionalism, and how lofty ideals can become corrupted and perverted by the agendas of subconsciously terrified little men.
John du Pont (Steve Carell, and it still doesn’t seem possible that that actually was Steve Carell) summons Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum), the younger, overshadowed brother of Olympian Dave Schulz (Mark Ruffalo), and offers him, seemingly, everything he could ever have asked for (in a brilliantly skewering detail, one of the things he asks for is the paltry salary of $25,000, which he can’t believe he receives—wrestling is not a glamor sport of endorsement deals and Hollywood wives). How does du Pont know which buttons to press? One of the cleverest aspects of the film is the clarity and yet subtlety with which the parallels between the two are drawn: both live in the shadow of a family member, (if you notice, almost every scene involving du Pont’s grand dame mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is immediately followed by one involving Mark’s brother, her death also foreshadowing his). And both men have a desperate desire to be great, to be the best at something, yet neither really has the resources to achieve that by talent alone. And so Mark accepts the offer to move in and start training for the World championships at du Pont’s purpose-built Foxcatcher facility. But soon after his initial success, their relationship starts to take on a much darker tone, with Mark essentially becoming a kind of emotional rent boy. Du Pont’s world-class boundary issues actually result in him destroying the thing he loves as he introduces dissipation into Mark’s lifestyle, and that’s when du Pont turns on him and, in an act that can only be seen by Mark as a betrayal by both men, hires Dave to come on board. As “Assistant Coach,” that is, as du Pont’s delusional idea that he has any wrestling expertise to offer results in more than one desperately pathetic display of ineptitude, in the face of everyone’s complicity in maintaining his illusions.
Marked by moments of levity and humor (the cocaine scene in the helicopter when both du Pont and Mark repeat “Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” over and over is hilarious, but also hilariously pointed), actually the film is overall extremely somber, a slow, inexorable uncoiling toward a tragedy we can feel in our bones is going to happen practically from the first shot of du Pont. Character is destiny, after all, and the character of du Pont is one of the most most complex and fascinatingly fucked up we’ve ever seen on screen. Carell is the revelation that everyone has suggested in the role, and then some: vocally, physically and psychologically he is not just unrecognizable, he simply is a different man, and a man whose tragic flaw (cursed to wield great wealth and influence with no shred of greatness to justify it) is the entire story of this film. It’s seldom we’ve ever witnessed such a total erasure of self in a role, and it deserves to win him everything, everywhere.
But he’s amply supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Channing Tatum who turns his lunkishness to brilliantly doleful purpose and invests his role with an interiority of loneliness and self-loathing that by the end we could even see coming across even in his style of wrestling. Which, incidentally deserves praise all its own—we’re no experts in the sport, but Tatum and Ruffalo both totally convinced in those fight scenes, especially the extended one of the two of them training that begins the film and that tells you, in course of a session that goes from cordial to aggressive, everything you need to know about their relationship. Ruffalo’s own part is smaller, but he’s as committed as if he were the star, and a single scene in which he is the uncomfortable subject of an interview about du Pont is a masterclass all by itself. Redgrave arguably does even more with even less; she really only speaks in a single scene, but when she does it’s with a fascinatingly contradictory mix of maternal instinct and disdain for her son, and even, at one moment, a flash of what might be fear.
We’ve been anticipating “Foxcatcher” since forever, it feels like, and our expectations were sky high, and yet in almost every way this towering film exceeds them. The sweeping intelligence of Miller’s enormous movie feels like it will be feeding our minds for days to come and as the best of his films, it is also simply one of the best dramas dissecting contemporary America (despite its period) that we’ve ever seen. Like the fox hunts that are a recurring motif or like the munitions with which the du Pont family first made their fortune, the arc of this story tends inexorably towards senseless death, but Miller has taken this unthinkable crime and carefully, precisely, dazzlingly, thought it out. [A]