Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, may be a docudrama about a famous murder case, but it is also – thrillingly! – a film about sports. That the two films never quite unify into a single artistic statement should not diminish its achievement. I’ve never seen a film that so powerfully conveys the appeal and intimacy between men in a competitive contact sport.
Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, an honor shared with his older, somewhat smaller brother, Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo. Their parents were divorced when Mark was just two, and the brothers had no attachments except each other; their mutual passion for wrestling leading, eventually, to their becoming champions. The story begins in 1987, when Mark is contacted by John Du Pont, of the chemical dynasty, who wants to subsidize Mark’s training for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. As portrayed by Steve Carell in an amazing, career-changing performance, Du Pont is an emotionally frigid, controlling egotist who has obsessively devoted his life to two passions, wrestling and ornithology. An amateur wrestler himself, he collects young wrestlers for “Team Foxcatcher”, after the family estate, with himself as self-styled coach and “mentor”. Du Pont eventually persuades a reluctant Dave to join his brother at Foxcatcher to coach the team, bringing his wife and two children with him.
Strong dramatic momentum is achieved in the triad relationship of the two brothers and Du Pont, who deliberately encourages mistrust and resentment between them. Mark is especially vulnerable, as he has seen his brother raise a family and settle into a normal life, while he is uncomfortable with any social contact outside of training and competition. Even those unfamiliar with the case will not be surprised by the conflict’s violent resolution. The impact is blunted, however, because Du Pont is such a withdrawn and isolated figure that you’re never quite sure of his motives. He is so obviously unbalanced that his crime seems almost arbitrary, based on a moment’s misguided resentment. In that sense, the story seems merely a clinical study of a diseased mind, and is devoid of tragic dimension.
No, my enthusiasm is more for the wrestling, which is what I suspect drew Miller to the story in the first place. It’s one of those rare instances where the background scenes are what the viewer leaves with, while the main story, while absorbing, is more conventional. I sense that Miller was so inspired by the sheer physical beauty of the sport that he wanted to convey its excitement as pure cinema. Brilliantly photographed, by Greig Fraser, the matches become a primal struggle between combatants. Each assesses his opponent’s mental powers as much as his strength. Training demands a continual refinement of technique, so that, with one swift grasp of his opponent, he can defeat him in seconds. The close-ups are so powerful because the head is the real target of the contest. First the takedown, then forcing the head and shoulders squarely against the gym floor. Really, very few sports films, even the classics of boxing like Raging Bull or The Set-Up, are able to show the concentration and mental agility that is so crucial to victory. And the anguish of the loser who, when struggling to break a hold, is slowly immobilized.
If not groundbreaking like the wrestling scenes, the story leading to the murder is always watchable, and often compelling. The performances are perfection itself, and Miller has shown more confidence with each film. Tatum, remarkably limber for his bulk, takes us deep within the man’s emotional insecurity, which even Olympic gold can’t dispel. Ruffalo is equally fine, and totally convincing on the mat, although his role is less developed. Carell is so good that, if you’d never heard of him before, you’d think he was a great actor but have doubts about whether he could do comedy.
Two straight dramatic scenes stand out. In the first, Carell and the Foxcatcher team are celebrating a championship victory. He leads a congratulatory toast to the group. Suddenly he stops and, reeling dizzily, falls to the floor. The team rises in alarm, and converges around him. But it’s just a prank. He grabs one of the men by the leg, tackling him, and the group responds with delight and relief. It’s a wonderful scene. We see that Du Pont is not just a figurehead leader, that he has brief moments when he can actually enjoy people on a human level.
Perhaps, but not if they’re female. I don’t remember any movie about a group of young men where the female sex, or sex itself, is so conspicuous by its absence. Siena Miller, playing Dave’s wife, is barely allowed even a moment, and the only other female part is Du Pont’s invalid mother. But Miller plots her role brilliantly. Vanessa Redgrave – beautiful, majestically ancient – has just one speaking scene, in which she tells her son that wrestling is a “low sport”. But then comes the payoff scene. Du Pont is coaching the team in the gym, when the door opens and his mother is wheeled in to watch him silently. Continuing without even a blink, the defiant son demonstrates a hold. While nothing goes wrong, we sense that he knows a forbidden border has been crossed. Then, in a tiny gesture, she signals to be wheeled out and, in doing so, has banished him.