Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a recounting of the true story that revolved around gold medal wrestlers/brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David (Mark Ruffalo) and their time on the estate of multi-millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) training with his Foxcatcher team in preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which led to the tragic murder of David by John. While Foxcatcher takes certain liberties with the actual timeline of events as well as certain aspects of its characters, it does so in the service of getting at a greater truth. Foxcatcher is a film that is ultimately about the death of the American dream.
Throughout this film there is a running intersection between the American dream and sports. The film opens with Mark Schultz in depressing conditions. He delivers a speech about winning a gold medal at the Olympics to a group of elementary school children who have no interest in it. The real punch comes when the next shot cuts to a check being signed for a measly $20. To top it all off he lives alone in an unglamorous room for rent and lives off Ramen. This is what being a self-proclaimed American hero has got him.
On the flip side is his older brother David, someone who has achieved the sort of glory and respect that was denied to Mark upon winning their gold medals. He has a healthy family life with his wife and two kids, and is highly thought of within the wrestling community. He has steady and well-paying work. He is the inverse of Mark in terms of fortune. This is what being a self-proclaimed American hero has got him.
Everything about the dynamic between these two brothers is given to us without any exposition or dialogue, but through physicality. One scene early in the film finds them sparring with each other to train, and you learn everything you need to know about these two. You see the resentment in Mark for not achieving everything that Dave has. You see that Dave ultimately looks after Mark like one of his kids. When Mark takes it too far and punches Dave giving him a bloody nose, you see Mark doesn’t like that Dave looks at him that way. When Dave just nods and wipes away the blood, ready to keep going, you see that nothing is going to stop Dave from loving Mark. And when the two just keep going on with their sparring, you see that these two share an unbreakable love and bond. All of that is given to the audience by Miller in a completely non-verbal way.
Tatum is an actor that is in a creative prime right now, but there’s still no denying he’s never delivered work like this before. Nobody has put Tatum’s physique to as good of use as this film has. Tatum is often cast because of his physical fitness, but nobody has let Tatum explore that characteristic like he does here. There’s a base fury that Tatum is operating on in every scene, whether Mark is talking to elementary school kids or wrestling on the mat. He’s lived a lifetime of being kicked around and living in his brother’s shadow, and Tatum brings that in each action of Mark’s.
This is Steve Carell at his most transformative. There’s a weird experiment with the audience that Miller puts on simply by casting Carell. There were several moments at the screening I attended where some members of the audience started laughing only to stop themselves moments later. There’s a residual desire to laugh at Carell, but you’re never quite sure if you’re supposed to due to the calculated way he plays du Pont. Even in the few moments of levity with the character, you’re still unsettled because of how believably Carell inhabits du Pont. It’s something that has to be experienced with an audience to be believed and understood. What’s impressive is that Miller never has a character so much as mention that du Pont is a paranoid schizophrenic, but it’s clear to even someone who isn’t familiar with this story that this is the case. Carell manages to humanize even the most despicable parts about du Pont. You get the sense that he is the nasty product of excessive indulgence and constant isolation. After a certain point you forget what Carell looks like without du Pont’s nose. The prosthetics also lend a sense of characterization being manifested. The nose on Carell insinuates a predatory nature, while the small alterations to Tatum’s cheekbones and nose heighten the sense that he’s a walking punching bag.
Mark Ruffalo gives an expertly understated performance here that you might miss simply because of how effortless he makes it look. He’s the MVP of this cast. Miller makes great use of Ruffalo’s natural humility to craft David as a man who you honestly believe is an all around good guy. He’s the type of guy you want to believe in, the type of guy who is successful because he deserves it, because he is a good person and is hard working. He is the American dream realized. He is an American hero brought to life. Thanks to Ruffalo’s warmth though, he makes it all feel real. When he is shot three times by John, you not only feel the loss of a good man with each bullet, you feel the loss of the American dream.
Vanessa Redgrave only has a few scenes – and even fewer lines – as John’s mother, but she doesn’t need more than that to make an impact. Her icy presence is felt in the way she looks at John. One of the most telling scenes about du Pont comes when she watches him “coach” his team, her disapproval burning through the frame through a simple look.
Du Pont starts talking about his love for bird watching at one point, and what can be learned from just watching. Miller is the type of director who knows how to just watch. He’s a master of understatement. He’s the type of director who makes films that are calculatively constructed yet never feel overly intruded into by him, a near impossible balance of filmmaking that he makes seem effortless. He has constant control over what the audience is thinking and feeling, but to his credit we don’t realize that’s the case while we’re watching his films.
The cinematography by Greig Fraser casts a constant sense of inescapable dread over the film. Even if you’re unfamiliar with this story, you know that something awful and heartbreaking is coming simply because of the skill with which Fraser and Miller frame their shots. There’s a dimming effect to the coloring and lighting within each shot, heightening the aesthetic of oncoming tragedy that gets underneath the audience’s skin to an almost suffocating effect.
When the final scene plays, the whole conversation about the death of the American dream comes full circle. As Mark enters an amateur fighting ring with the crowd chanting “U.S.A.!!!” repeatedly, a sobering truth is realized: The American dream is no longer something achieved, it’s something monetized.