If you don’t remember the bizarre news story from the ’90s about weirdo billionaire John du Pont and gold-medalist wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, then Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” won’t just be deeply unsettling, it will also be surprising. And even if you do know ahead of time what direction the story goes, you may not be prepared for the masterful way that Miller keeps us off-balance and uneasy, or for the gnawing sense of doom that gradually builds.
The story begins in 1987, three years after the Schultzes both won medals in the Los Angeles Olympics. Dave (Mark Ruffalo), the more well-established of the two, has a family and job opportunities. Mark (Channing Tatum), less successful, more monosyllabic, is making money however he can, including doing inspirational talks at elementary schools that thought they were getting his brother. He lives alone in an upstairs apartment, eating ramen, and spends hours training with Dave.
Then Mark is contacted by someone representing John E. du Pont (Mark doesn’t know who that is, no matter how many times the caller repeats the name), who would like to fly him out to his Pennsylvania estate for a meeting. A plane trip and a helicopter ride later, Mark is at the estate, called Foxcatcher (release the hounds!), to meet C. Montgomery Burns — er, John E. du Pont.
John is played by Steve Carell, almost unrecognizable under the elaborate makeup used to make him resemble the real John du Pont. (Tatum and Ruffalo are modified too, but not as drastically.) John is an odd duck, to put it mildly, socially awkward, fabulously rich, completely isolated from the normal world but almost heartbreakingly eager to connect with it. He has no friends, and his only family is his ancient mother (Lynn Redgrave), whom he can’t stand. His hobbies include stamps, bird-watching, and guns.
John also fancies himself a wrestling coach, and he wants to sponsor Mark and Dave’s training here at Foxcatcher, to give them all the resources they need to bring home the gold again and make America proud. Dave is skeptical when he hears the proposal — it’s only natural to be suspicious of eccentric billionaires, I think — but Mark is all for it. John du Pont has made a friend through the time-honored practice of making a dumb guy feel special.
Thus begins a peculiar, often unnervingly funny bromance, complete with a training montage set to plaintive piano music that would not be out of place in a falling-in-love montage. While there are no overt references to it, John is clearly sexually repressed, 50 years old with nary a mention of any relationship he’s ever had. Mark is oblivious, but it’s not hard to see why John might want to hang out with a strapping young athlete. Mark becomes his pet, his prize to show off at parties (“Mark won a gold medal in the Olympics!”). At one point he actually commands him to “stay,” like a dog.
Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) keeps a quiet, deliberate pace, moving the film gently but steadily toward its climax. E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s screenplay carefully avoids telegraphing what sort of climax it will be, leaving us with the sense that it could happen in any scene. John’s behavior becomes more erratic, more bizarre (“Most of my friends will call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle”), more angry at Dave for rejecting his kind offer of training. Dave eventually comes around (everyone has a price), but John, spoiled child that he is, can be petulant and nasty. And Mark finds that John is less happy with him when he doesn’t win matches.
I’ll just say it: The makeup seems unnecessary. Du Pont and the Schultz brothers are famous-ish, but their faces aren’t. Why go to so much trouble to make the actors resemble them? It’s distracting at first to hear Steve Carell’s voice coming out of a face that obviously isn’t his. I got used to it as the film went on, though — a testament to how good Carell is, completely losing himself in the role. And I suppose if the makeup helps the actors get into their characters, more power to ’em. Still, it means viewers are spending the first however-many-minutes gawking at the prosthetics instead of being drawn into the story.
Carell is fascinating here, totally different from Michael Scott on “The Office” even though the characters share many traits (awkwardness, eagerness to be a mentor, a lack of self-awareness). Du Pont can be dull or outrageous, pathetic or humorous depending on the day, but Carell plays him at all times as a real person, albeit one with idiosyncrasies. Tatum is likewise deeply committed as Mark Schultz, adopting a wrestler’s physique and swagger and going to great lengths to convey the character’s intense frustration and sadness. Ruffalo’s role isn’t as large, but he has one terrific moment in particular where he’s asked to describe du Pont for a documentary and struggles with how to respond honestly. Ruffalo, an actor’s actor, nails it.
Miller doesn’t make sport of anyone in the story. He calmly lets the characters present themselves and do what they do without feeling a need to point out how weird they are, or how amusing something is. The movie is often funny yet not a comedy; it’s disturbing but not a horror. It’s a riveting character study, a non-sensationalist account of a true story that compels our interest even if we know the ending.
A- (2 hrs., 14 min. ; )
Originally published at Complex.