Actors shine in true-crime wrestling drama ‘Foxcatcher’
The true-crime drama Foxcatcher begins with a brief but telling montage of home-movie footage. An elegant woman on horseback and her child on a pony are getting ready to join a fox hunt on a massive estate. The hunting party is attended by so many servants (including one to release the fox), we might be glimpsing a scene from the High Victorian era, except for the mid-20th Century clothing. At the end, we see a horse being led back to the stables, with the legend “Foxcatcher Farm” emblazoned on his blanket.
Immediately, the audience understands that the film’s title references not only a specific place, but the idea of the idle rich at play. It’s an excellent use of visual shorthand that director Bennett Miller should have employed more often throughout his film. Foxcatcher is a thoughtful and thought-provoking drama of money and privilege, severe delusions of grandeur, and a murder that rocked the world of professional wrestling. But too often Miller’s slow-moving narrative threatens to sink under its own sense of gravitas.
Fortunately, the film is shored up by three outstanding performances. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are both terrific as brothers and Olympic wrestling champions Mark Schultz and Dave Schultz. And Steve Carell undergoes an extreme physical, as well as image makeover in the pivotal role of John du Pont, scion of “America’s wealthiest family,” and current proprietor of the Foxcatcher estate, who improbably and inextricably inserts himself into the lives, careers, and destiny of the Schultz brothers.
Scripted by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, the story begins in 1987. Mark Schultz (Tatum), a gold-medalist in the 1984 Olympics, ekes a living out of minimal personal appearances while working with his older brother, Dave (Ruffalo), also a gold-medalist in ’84, who is Mark’s coach and training partner. Loner Mark has always lived in the shadow of outgoing family man Dave, so Mark is stunned when he’s the one invited to the grand Pennsylvania estate of John du Pont (Carell).
Having built a deluxe gym on his property, John wants to sponsor a champion wrestler for the ’88 games in Seoul, and Mark is thrilled to be chosen. But the prince isn’t all he seems in this Cinderella tale. John is revealed to be a coke-snorting misfit who’s never had a friend nor any intimate relationships, and is still acting out against his domineering mother. The wrestling team that Mark assembles gives John the illusion of male camaraderie, along with the delusion that he is their coach, father-figure, and mentor. His solution to any problem is to throw money at it, which is how he finally persuades Dave to uproot his family and join Team Foxcatcher.
Not knowing the details of the murder case going in, I was impressed with the way Miller and his writers set up the dynamic of tension, unrequited fantasy, and power in the strained, complex relationship between these three men. Anything might happen as things simmer to a boil. Any one of them might be a victim. Any one of them at any given moment might be driven to kill.
But even as Miller amps up the creepiness and our sense of dread, his storytelling can be ponderous. There are way too many shots of someone—most often John—simply gazing into space, evidently meant to suggest an inner turmoil that we already know exists. Miller’s penchant for blackouts between some scenes (they seem to last for a minute apiece), stops the action dead in its tracks, slowing things down even more.
Miller didn’t have this problem in his last sports movie, the fun, frisky Moneyball. This time out, he seems overly conscious of making an American tragedy, as if funereal pacing were the only way to show respect for the story. But the film often feels overwhelmed by its sense of self-importance.
Still, the actors save the day. Ruffalo contributes the film’s only warmth, and Carell’s portrait of repressed arrogance is chilling. But most impressive is Tatum; his hooded eyes, lantern-jaw and stoic jock demeanor provide an often heartbreaking outsider’s viewpoint into the rarefied realm of Foxcatcher.
*** (out of four)
With Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo. Written by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye. Directed by Bennett Miller. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 134 minutes.