At first, it seems like a strange bit of stunt casting: Steve Carell as John du Pont. With a beak-like nose that more than a little resembles the character Gru he plays in the Despicable Me films, the casting of Carell may seem like a joke that Bennett Miller is playing on us. Except it isn’t. The thing of it is, Carell is pretty good as du Pont. His du Pont is charismatic yet slightly off, a little unsettling. That’s the way it should be.
Based on a true story, Foxcatcher is a gripping tale of wrestling, yes, but also of brotherhood and fatherhood, and also madness. It isn’t a great film, and I don’t know if it deserved all those Oscar nominations, but it’s well-made and features three very good performances. Though most of the reviews talk about Carell’s work here, I was the most surprised by Channing Tatum’s performance. He has been good in a few movies (most notably the 21 Jump Street films), but this is a career-high performance. He plays wrestler Mark Schultz who, as the film opens, may have already hit his peak having won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, alongside his brother/father figure David Schultz (played by Mark Ruffalo).
The film centers on Mark and David’s relationship, but also on the eccentric billionaire John du Pont, and his desire to fund and coach the American wrestling team at the upcoming 1988 Olympics. The film never really explains where du Pont’s obsession with wrestling stems from, although the film strongly hints at a homoerotic aspect (several historians and critics have noted that the film ignores certain aspects in order to underline the homoerotic subtext, although the real Mark Schultz says they got most of it right). Clearly, though, du Pont is enacting some kind of strange fantasy, since he is not very familiar with the rules of wrestling or the game itself.
Director Bennett Miller has always been fascinated with real people who lead eccentric lives; look back on his previous films Capote and Moneyball, for instance. Here, he focuses his eye on a very different kind of story. Like many films made in this country about sports, an underlying theme of Foxcatcher is the pursuit of the American Dream. Mark craves it while David seems to have a version of it and is more or less content. John offers them the American Dream, but it seems a distorted and perverted version.
There are two key scenes in the film. One is a sequence between du Pont and Mark while they ride in a helicopter on their way to a gala dinner. It is clear that du Pont sees himself as some kind of father figure, but in this sequence, we see for the first time the recklessness and danger that du Pont may represent. The other key scene, the scene that probably got Ruffalo his Oscar nomination, features David being interviewed for a documentary extolling the virtues of Team du Pont, funded by du Pont himself. The scene is a virtually a lesson in master acting, as David struggles to say, as he’s being coached by the interviewer, what a brilliant coach du Pont is.
Foxcatcher is a haunting and provocative drama, anchored by three very strong performances.
Foxcatcher. 2014. Dir. Bennett Miller. With Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd. Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Cinematography by Greig Fraser. United States.