Overlooked Films: Foxcatcher

Directed by Bennett Miller
Sony Pictures Classics, 134 minutes, R (Language, violence)
* * *

Do you recall any of the four medals won by US wrestlers at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul (1 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze)? Of course you don't! You can, however, go to the head of the mat if you've ever heard of Dave and Mark Schultz (who won gold medals in 1984), and–unless you've seen Foxcatcher–you get a golden kneepad if you remember that a du Pont heir murdered Dave in 1996. I mean no disrespect to the athletes, but the reality is that in the United States wrestling is only marginally more in the public eye than polo or biathlon. In many ways, that's a major point of the movie Foxcatcher.

It opens in 1986, just after Mark (Channing Tatum) won a gold at wrestling's world championship in Budapest in the 82 kg division. Back home, fame such as that got you a $20 speaker's fee for high school motivation speeches! Enter John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carrell), an addle-brained billionaire living on a sprawling horse farm with his domineering mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) and harboring dreams (delusions?) of reinventing himself as an über patriot and wrestling guru. He's willing to sink some of his considerable resources into making the US wrestling team a symbol of national pride and proceeds to open a state-of-the-art training facility on the manor lands, which he dubs "Foxcatcher." Recruiting Mark to train there is his first coup, but the big fish is Dave (Mark Ruffalo), considered the nation's best coach. Soon Foxcatcher is the de facto Olympic training center for wrestlers. After all, what obscure sportsman could resist the patronage of a sugar daddy, or the lure of living on a sylvan estate?

Foxcatcher is, at heart, about young athletes caught up in a rich sociopath's visions, whims, coke-fueled fantasies, psychotic storms, and barely repressed homosexual yearnings. Du Pont was that special breed of monster that only obscene wealth can produce. As we quickly see, he is a bully, an egoist, and an idiot who pontificates upon things about which he knows nothing–and that's especially the case with wrestling. Even he eventually sees this–especially after Mark leaves the facility and the US wrestling team fails to capture public attention or win a lot of star-spangled glory. When he ultimately murders Dave Schultz, it's because Dave's very competence, popularity, and kindness remind him of what a waste his life has been.  (John du Pont died in prison.)

Director Bennett Miller has probed offbeat characters before, most notably in Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011). The film's greatest revelation, however, is Steve Carell's acting. Though known as a comic, he gives Chevy Chase a run for the money in the Least Funny Comedian category. If Foxcatcher is any indication, Carell should shift to drama. He rightly garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His is a nuanced performance that makes us alternatively pity and loathe du Pont. Carell also displays a potpourri of emotions, each convincing within their contexts. Ruffalo is solid as Dave, and gets special kudos for displaying a blue-collar ethos that combines the right balance between being respectful, tough, protective, prodding, and likable. Tatum is less successful as Mark. He does naivety well, but overall is wooden and flat.

Tatum's performance is a weak link, though Foxcatcher has other flaws. Liberties are taken with sequencing, especially in the last 20 minutes, which confusingly elide about 7 years of time. The yes men around du Pont are largely cardboard cutouts and there's too much testosterone on screen. Redgrave seems to have been hired to add gravitas to the cast, as her role is little more than a cameo. It is, however, positively robust compared to the shallow presence of Sienna Miller as Dave's wife, Nancy, who mostly remind us what a great family man Dave is. Miller is an enormously underrated actress, so we must give Golden Piggy Hooves to screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman for giving her so little to do.  

The film won a Palme d'Or in 2014, but grossed just $15 million against a budget of $24 million. This is odd, as Foxcatcher is an excellent look at how an unhinged individual finally tumbles. Foxcatcher is certainly worth a rental. You might not change your mind about wrestling, but you'll walk away with newfound respect for Steve Carell.
Rob Weir

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