A coldly ominous atmosphere pervades “Foxcatcher,” Bennett Miller’s docu-drama about the circumstances behind the 1996 murder of Olympic freestyle wrestling star Dave Schultz by multi-millionaire John Eleuthere du Pont. The film is chillingly dark from the very start, but Miller screws up the tension progressively over the course of two hours until by the close the threat of imminent disaster becomes almost palpable. And, of course, things suddenly do explode in violence.
The strange tale begins with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), Dave’s younger brother who had also won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics as well as a World Championship afterward, barely eking out an existence while preparing for further competitions. (We see him earning twenty bucks for giving an uplifting talk before an assembly of bored elementary-school kids.) He has sparring sessions with Dave, who’s married and raising a family while working as a school coach, but it’s a lonely life with few prospects. Then, out of the blue, he gets a call from a du Pont representative inviting him to come to the family’s Pennsylvania estate and meet with John (Steve Carell).
The millionaire presents himself to Mark as a zealous patriot who’s anxious to see the U.S. do well in future international wrestling contests. To that end he’s built a state-of-the-art training facility on his property, and invites Mark to live in a guest house there and become the first of a group that will eventually include an initially reluctant Dave and come to be known as Team Foxcatcher, after the estate’s name. John will act as not just a patron but a coach to the men, inspiring them (at least in his own mind, and his own propaganda) to victories that will bring glory not just to them—and him—but to the country as well.
Things obviously do not work out as planned. The bizarreness of du Pont becomes increasingly unsettling, and especially after the affable Dave arrives, usurping the central position among the wrestlers, Mark, never the most ingratiating fellow, grows more and more sullen and incommunicative., and his performance on the mat deteriorates. The actors capture brilliantly the unease in the relationships among the three men. Ruffalo is all smiling bonhomie, but one senses a wary perceptiveness beneath the good-natured concern, and Tatum, who juts out his chin to show Mark’s bulldog pugnacity, manages also to convey the vulnerability—and resentment over his brother’s easygoing charm—within.
And then there’s Carell. Much will be made about how the role of du Pont represents a stretch for him, and in many ways it does. Pudgier, and with a large prosthetic nose that almost forces him to continuously look upward merely to support it, as well as waxy skin, he certainly looks different, and his slow, softly sinister mode of speech is unlike Carell’s usual brash delivery, too. But in du Pont one senses the same sort of awkwardness and veiled insecurity that characterized Michael Scott too, a similar fear of being discovered as false and inadequate—a tone that Carell cannily express in both inflection and gesture. It’s a very controlled performance, and one that operates within an extremely limited range—but the fact that Carell is able to maintain its consistency over the course of the picture, even in the final act, is remarkable.
Of course much of the actors’ success depends on Miller’s direction, which shows the same skill in drawing out precisely what’s required from them that infused “Capote” and “Moneyball.” And Miller works just as effectively with his production team—cinematographer Greig Fraser, editors Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill and Jay Cassidy, production designer Jess Gonchor , art director Brad Ricker, set decorator Kathy Lucas as costumer Kasia Walicka-Maimone—to fashion, and more importantly to sustain, the mood of understated menace that permeates every frame, and that Ron Simonsen’s subtle score accentuates.
It will probably be noted that screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (the latter Miller’s main muse, it seems) do fudge details in crafting the film’s arc. The chronology isn’t ideally clear—in reality Mark and Dave Schultz didn’t reside at the estate at the same time (Mark lived there between 1986 and 1988, and Dave between 1989 and 1996). Moreover, the effort to dramatize the idea that at least some of du Pont’s psychological problems derive from mommy issues led them to present Jean du Pont (played with withering snobbery by Vanessa Redgrave) as a highly class-conscious figure who watches her son’s obsession with such a low-brow sport as wrestling—and his construction of an Olympic-quality training facility at the estate—with stern disapproval before dying at a dramatically convenient moment. (She was interested in horse breeding, a far more proper avocation.) In reality, du Pont built his facility only after her death in 1988, whe4n he also changed the estate’s name to Foxcatcher. Additional deviations from the record can also be found.
But of course Miller’s film isn’t a documentary; it’s a drama that, like his previous films, uses a real event to illuminate deeper, more universal issues—the meaning of patriotism, the power of inherited wealth, the drive for athletic prowess and victory. And if it fiddles with the facts in pursuit of the larger truths that they can illustrate, one can easily accept such an exercise of dramatic license. After all, one not only accepts but expects it in Shakespeare’s so-called history plays, and “Foxcatcher” in many respects is a tragedy for the modern age, a quietly riveting study of obsession that leads to catastrophe.