Smoke-black parable of modern America, with screenplay as tense, tuned as a concert grand
When Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo first share the screen in Foxcatcher, they’re like a pair of oversized puppies, bounding and nuzzling, paws raised up to snouts, each man sussing out the other through scent and instinct.
They play Dave and Mark Schultz, two brothers and Olympic gold-medallist wrestlers, and in that brief sequence in a dilapidated downtown gym, we find out everything about them. Mark (Tatum, excellent) is the younger of the two. He moves twitchily, bloodying his brother’s nose with a headbutt – probably accidental, though we can’t be sure. But it’s patient, watchful Dave (Ruffalo, equally so) who gets the pin.
What happened to the Schultzes around 20 years ago as a result of their dealings with John Eleuthère du Pont, scion of the Du Pont gunpowder dynasty, who welcomed the brothers to his privately funded “Team Foxcatcher” wrestling facility, is a matter of public record. But if you aren’t already familiar with the story, don’t seek it out.
Foxcatcher’s director, Bennett Miller, has taken a bizarre news event from the mid-’90s and built it into a swirling, smoke-black parable about America’s inner workings: the chokehold inherited wealth still exerts over what’s supposedly a dream-chasing meritocracy, and the way in which material success is falsely equated with moral rectitude.
It’s a cold and hostile film – at times, Greig Fraser’s breathcatching cinematography almost seems to be fringed with frost – and you find yourself clinging to the warm dogginess of that early, brotherly scene for heat.
You think back on it when Mark’s summoned alone to Foxcatcher Farm, Du Pont’s Pennsylvania estate, where he’s given the chance to train at a privately funded, state-of-the-art facility in preparation for the forthcoming Olympic Games in Seoul.
When Du Pont first shuffles on screen, Miller withholds the expected close-up that would let us see the man’s face and meet the actor playing him. Instead, for a couple of minutes, the character lingers in the middle-distance, weird, unknowable and not recognisably warm-blooded.
He’s played by Steve Carell, although when his close-up finally comes, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. The comic actor plays completely against type, giving the kind of performance that’s like walking through cobwebs – days later, you’re still shivering at the thought of it. The beaky nose and glazed, amphibian skin are prosthetics, but his transformation comes from deep within.
His words rattle out unevenly, as if hand-cranked from a jack-inthe-box, and you watch him with widened eyes and bated breath, waiting for the jester to jump.
Du Pont’s proposal doesn’t seem to make much sense (what’s in it for him?), and his bona fides as a wrestling coach don’t check out, but Mark mistakes his own confusion for amazement, and instantly signs up.
Du Pont also wants Dave on board, even though the elder brother is settled with his family in the Philadelphia suburbs, and wants to give his wife (Sienna Miller) and children the stable upbringing he missed.
How much does he want?” asks Du Pont. “You can’t buy Dave,” replies Mark. There is a long pause, as Du Pont unsuccessfully attempts to process this.
But he can, and does, buy Mark. The stocky, stern young athlete is transformed into Du Pont’s plaything: the pair snort cocaine together, attend society dinners where Mark eulogises his master’s brilliance from prepared scripts, and wrestle in the library, after dark, in an eerie, tortured, Goya-like embrace.
And the canine imagery returns with a stomach-lurching twist: out on the Foxcatcher terrace, we see Mark kneeling at Du Pont’s feet like a faithful hound, his hindquarters clenched, his hair fluffed and bleached.
The film doesn’t show Du Pont as taking an overtly sexual interest in his man-pet, although he doesn’t seem capable of taking an overtly sexual interest in anything. What gives him pleasure is the building of his own legend – an ongoing project designed to prove to his domineering, racehorse trainer mother that he, too, is a winner, deserving of the Du Pont family name, and someone who’ll be remembered.
The elderly Mrs Du Pont, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is a Norma Bates figure mostly glimpsed in the distance, but whose presence looms large over everything her son does. Miller’s previous films were fascinated by mavericks and trend-buckers – the excellent Capote and Moneyball were both his – but here, he wades into the system itself, where bloodlines, history and legacy (and, by extension, mothers) count for everything.
The film’s conclusion comes as a sickening shock, but in retrospect, it seems coldly inevitable, and Miller milks its symbolic significance for all it’s worth. This is a momentous, history-making film about money and influence in modern America, worthy of consideration alongside David Fincher’s The Social Network and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Even when you step out of its shadow, its chill lingers on your skin.
– The Telegraph