In a meticulous, finely modulated synergy of screenplay, actors and director, “Foxcatcher” unfolds as a fascinating, indeed shocking, study of a character warped by privilege, wealth and repressed urges.
There is a slightly comic flavor to the Pinteresque power struggles in “Foxcatcher.” Director Bennett Miller certainly sees the comic implications in the delusions of a man out of his emotional depth. Put it this way, if you took away this story’s tragic ending, “Foxcatcher” is pretty much a comedy.
The film is being pushed as a brave and unexpected serious turn by comic actor Steve Carell. It’s that, of course, but it’s so much more. You can only hope audiences who come for a “freak show” will also marvel at all the superbly gifted actors at Miller’s command.
The story hinges on a shocking murder committed in 1996 by John du Pont, a member of one of the nation’s riches families. He shot three times Dave Schultz, a former Olympics wrestler who ran a training program du Pont established at his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Du Pont was declared mentally ill but not insane and died in prison in 2010.
A sharp screenplay by E. Max Frye (“Something Wild”) and Dan Futterman (“Capote”) uses this tragedy to investigate the corrosive influence of wealth and sexual repression as well as the bonds and rivalries of brotherhood and class divisions in America. The latter is a subject almost never contemplated in American films.
As yet another adventurous title from Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, this Sony Pictures Classics release stands out as one of the more remarkable prestige titles in what has unfortunately become the annual final quarter sprint to the Oscar finishing line.
In a shift in role selection nearly equal to Carell’s, Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, who along with his brother was a gold medalist (at the 1984 Los Angeles Games).
Mark is depicted as a man on a downward spiral by 1987, socially awkward and living a life of near poverty and frustration. Outside of the gym he appears aimless.
Training for another Olympic shot, Mark lacks inspiration other than what he receives from his much more gregarious older brother and mentor, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). His brother is liked by everyone; meanwhile Mark resides moodily in his shadow.
He is therefore an easy target of persuasion when John du Pont telephones him out of the blue. He summons Mark via a first-class airline ticket and private helicopter to his immense estate.
Carell’s John du Pont glides into a “trophy room” with a prominent nose pointing ever upwards and the delicate air of a man confident in his standing and wealth but seemingly with the chip of failed expectations on his shoulder.
He pauses frequently in conversations, which tend to be one-sided anyway with those he employs — about the only relationships he seems to have. You imagine he’s searching for the right word to impress or manipulate the conversation.
John installs the young man in a luxurious guest house (in distinct contrast to his lousy apartment) and re-invigorates him, with patriotic speeches and sports rah-rah, into a training regimen that results in initial wrestling victories.
As training begins in earnest for the Seoul Olympics, John brings in virtually the entire Olympic team, essentially buying them with his contributions to the sport, to train at his estate.
John moves tentatively into a more physical relationship with Mark, touching him in wrestling holds when he tries to act as a coach, which in itself is absurd given his lack of experience and knowledge.
Then John starts to ply Mark with drugs and alcohol, until Mark is in such shambles he starts to lose matches. Concerned about his deterioration, John, in a moment of anger, turns to Dave and installs him, his wife (Sienna Miller) and children in the compound.
John has always insisted to Mark that he can step out of his brother’s shadow and become a hero too. Now he denies Mark his chance and the two are barely on speaking terms.
So the power has shifted as Dave takes over and John’s “coaching” is mostly for show in front of his imperious mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) and for a documentary he is endlessly making about his contributions to U.S. wrestling.
So the elements begin to coalesce: A physically strong but emotional weak man; a physically weak but prideful man shielded by enormous wealth; and a brother who comes between them and perhaps inadvertently closes off John from the object of his desire.
(The film remains discreet as to whether Mark ever gave into any sexual importunities from John.)
Miller (“Moneyball,” “Capote”) keeps the power dynamics at a deliberate place to allow all the nuances and subtext to play out. He never falls into the trap of placing a scene that explains-it-all into the scenario.
Carell at times is channelling Peter Seller’s simple-minded Chance the gardener in Hal Ashby’s “Being There” whose naive truisms are mistaken by those that hear them as brilliant commentary. Du Pont’s wealth creates not only a shield for his eccentricities but an aura of brilliant insight into wrestling and life itself when in fact he knows little about either.
Meanwhile Tatum creates a devastating portrait in self-loathing. In one shocking scene he retreats to a dingy hotel room after losing a key match and binge eats about eight hotel meals and desserts, a man trying to smother his personal anguish.
Ruffalo by contrast creates the only “normal” character in the movie, whose support and faith in his brother never wavers no matter how badly he is rejected by his brother.
The film takes some liberties with the real story but does so in search of greater truths. As America drifts dangerously toward an even greater divide between the 1% and the rest of us, “Foxcatcher” dramatizes the emotional poverty of at least one super wealthy American.
Opens: November 14, 2014 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Annapurna Pictures
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenwriters: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Producers: Megan Ellison, Bennett Miller, Jon Kilik, Anthony Bregman
Executive producers: Chelsea Barnard, Ron Schmidt, Mark Bakshi, Michael Coleman, Tom Heller
Director of photography: Greig Fraser
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Music: Rob Simonsen
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Editors: Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill, Jay Cassidy
R rating, 135 minutes