In his three narrative features, director Bennett Miller has exclusively focused on telling real-life stories with an elegant, restrained approach. While “Moneyball” brought a lighter touch due to its lively hook, “Foxcatcher” finds Miller reverting to “Capote” territory with an icy narrative largely built around performances riddled with darker themes. If “Moneyball” celebrated the delicate art of athletic management, “Foxcatcher” functions like its evil twin, exploring the capacity of the profession to mess with its practitioners’ heads. Though anchored by a sullen Channing Tatum, the movie derives its primary discomfiting power from Steve Carell in a revelatory performance as a monster of American wealth.
The true story in this case is one that has been largely forgotten in the two-decades-plus since it receded from the headlines. In 1996, millionaire philanthropist John du Pont (Carell), an heir to the du Pont family fortune, murdered Olympic gold champion wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo, low key and likable) after years of sponsoring him and his brother, Mark (Tatum), also an Olympic gold winner. Deemed mentally ill but nevertheless found guilty, du Pont died in prison four years ago. Taking its cues from Mark Schultz’s autobiography, “Foxcatcher” recounts du Pont’s strange obsession with financing the brothers’ career and eventually becoming a major wrestling sponsor even as he exhibited continuing signs of instability.
Rather than delving into the fallout of du Pont’s violent outburst, “Foxcatcher” tracks Mark’s experience before the benefactor enters his life and the destructive impact that Du Pont’s support eventually has on him. The screenplay, by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, uses a straightforward approach in its depiction of Mark’s solitary existence after his gold-medal win, as he scrounges for money lecturing at schools and trains for the next championship with his brother, a more confident and settled family man.
Du Pont’s arrival in Mark’s life gives him a sudden burst of excitement: the strange man beckons Mark to Philadelphia with encouraging words about his career prospects, rejecting the neglect he has faced from the American sports industry in the wake of his earlier triumphs and promising to host Mark’s efforts as part of “Team Foxcatcher” on the grounds where his late father maintained a racing stable with the same name. With time, Mark grows into his reliance on du Pont’s support, even as the financier develops a greater interest in luring Mark’s brother, and eventually resents both of them.
As with “Capote,” the atmosphere in “Foxcatcher” is unsettling from start to finish. Beginning with one dark situation and shifting to another, it sticks with the tone even when Mark gains some confidence in his future. The early scenes are an expert assemblage of small fragments from the wrestler’s pathetic hand-to-mouth existence, and Tatum’s subdued delivery goes great lengths to suggest the disconnect that the wrestler feels from the minimal opportunities surrounding him.
But even as Du Pont’s sudden offer strikes Mark as a welcome surprise, there’s no doubting its ominous qualities from the outset. From the moment Carell appears onscreen, his performance transcends his every attempt at gravitas preceding it. He gives Du Pont a creepy, distant gaze and awkward cadences that immediately suggest he’s not all there. But it’s telling that Mark doesn’t see it that way—in his desperate state, the wrestler shares some aspect of Du Pont’s hysteria, never questioning his motives until it’s too late.
Buried under layers of makeup and gray hair, Carell succeeds at distancing himself from any semblance of the comedic roles that established his career, although “Foxcatcher” doesn’t back away from occasional black comedy. The extreme nature of his insular life, fleshed out during conversations with his overbearing mother (a steely-eyed Vanessa Redgrave), often takes on the quality of a morbid joke that grows darker as it moves along. Forced into a corner by the luxuries thrust upon him at a young age, Du Pont’s eccentric behavior illustrates just how much he’s become trapped in the irrational pathways of his own mind. (“I consider us friends, and all my friends call me ‘Eagle’ or ‘Golden Eagle,'” he tells Mark, long after admitting that he has no friends.)
But while the movie’s muted approach sometimes has an alienating effect on the story’s emotional weight, Du Pont’s growing disdain for the Schultz brothers generates a mounting sense of dread. At first, the power-hungry Du Pont fixates on bringing Mark’s brother into his domain with a higher price tag, generating immediate tensions between the two of them; when Mark finally heads to Pennsylvania with his wife (a woefully underutilized Sienna Miller) and their kids, Du Pont begins a series of poor attempts at emulating Mark’s team leadership in the moments leading up to the 1988 Olympics, which forms the last straw in whatever semblance of sanity that the rich man has left.
There’s nothing surprising about watching Du Pont’s slow descent into fantasies of his managerial expertise, but Miller wisely leaves much about that process unstated. Similarly, the brothers don’t talk about their feelings as well as they show them at work. The physical dimension of the sport in question often takes center stage, as the wrestlers express the frustrations they can’t verbalize through muscular collisions and in the closeups of their strained, flushed expressions. Meanwhile, Carell does a lot with very little, often sitting still and gazing at everything he can’t have for himself.
The movie’s strongest image involves a wide shot of Du Pont sitting alone in his expansive office, gazing at a television screen reflecting his face, presumably contemplating his shortcomings. Like Charles Foster Kane lurking in the shadows of Xanadu in “Citizen Kane,” Du Pont is a victim of his affluence just as trapped by the capitalist forces as the wrestlers he chooses to employ. “I am giving America hope,” he announces at one point. He may be delusional, but “Foxcatcher” ends with the bold suggestion that many Americans share some aspect of the same disease.
A version of this review ran during the Cannes Film Festival. “Foxcatcher” opens in limited release this Friday.