Ever since Charles Foster Kane dropped his snow globe, movies about rich men isolated, warped, and sometimes driven mad by their own wealth and power have served as a way for American filmmakers to tell larger stories about the ideology that creates such monsters. Daniel Plainview, the self-made oil tycoon in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, was a character in Kane’s bloodline. So, in all his lumpy, tracksuit-clad pathos, is John E. du Pont, the decidedly non-self-made chemical-corporation heir and would-be wrestling guru played by Steve Carell in Bennett Miller’s somber and elegant third film, Foxcatcher.
John du Pont was a real person, a prominent philanthropist and published ornithologist whose true life story is, in many ways, even stranger than the version that appears on screen, though I’ll leave both versions unspoiled for those who want to go in knowing as little as possible. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, du Pont took it in his head to sponsor and house an Olympic-caliber wrestling team at his palatial estate near Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. Two of the biggest feathers in du Pont’s cap were the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, both former Olympic gold medalists who eventually came to live and train in a specially built facility on the grounds of du Pont’s vast property. Foxcatcher (the title comes from the name of the estate, originally a horse farm) tracks the history of the brothers’ involvement with this eccentric and increasingly sinister billionaire.
Foxcatcher doesn’t begin with du Pont, though—for some time before he makes his appearance, we’re in the glum company of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), the younger of the two wrestling brothers. Three years after winning gold at the 1984 L.A. Olympics, Mark is living alone in a barren apartment, taking speaking gigs at middle schools for the meager fee of $20, and obsessively training at the college gym run by the more charismatic Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a menschy family man with a wife (Sienna Miller) and two young children. Mark feels overshadowed by his brother and adrift in the world outside the wrestling ring—a state of mind communicated with admirable economy by both Tatum and Bennett Miller—so when a call comes from a mysterious billionaire offering to helicopter him in for a face-to-face conversation, he accepts.
Mark’s first encounter with John du Pont, in a stately library at the latter’s colossal mansion, comes as a shock not just to the young athlete but to the audience. We’re not used to seeing the genial comic actor Steve Carell with gray hair, extra poundage, and an enormous hooked nose. Most of all, though, it’s the way Carell’s cold fish of a billionaire carries himself that’s unsettling. At once patrician and pitiful, he’s a kind of overgrown toddler, so used to getting what he wants that any hint of opposition is met with blinking incomprehension. It’s surprisingly easy for du Pont to convince the needy, lonely, and none-too-bright Mark to move into a guesthouse on the Foxcatcher property and accept the utterly unqualified du Pont as his new coach and all-around mentor. But du Pont’s attempt to land Mark’s brother Dave as his team’s resident trainer meets with more resistance. “Dave can’t be bought,” Mark explains apologetically—the implication being that he himself was on the auction block. But that kind of integrity doesn’t compute in du Pont’s worldview; surely, he insists, every man must have his price.
Eventually du Pont does manage to bring Dave into the Foxcatcher fold, but not before he has begun to introduce the formerly clean-living Mark to the pleasures of cocaine, whiskey, and vaguely Reaganite monologues about achievement and patriotism. The curious bond between these two men—beautifully explored in one long scene aboard a helicopter en route to a fancy fundraiser—is a perverse caricature of the father/son or mentor/mentee relationship, with hints of erotic fascination thrown in. There’s lots and lots of wrestling in Foxcatcher; if you’ve ever wanted to see Channing Tatum or Mark Ruffalo (or, why not, Steve Carell) roll on the floor with beefy men wearing naught but a skimpy singlet, your prayers have been answered. But this isn’t a sports movie by any stretch of the imagination (though there’s one sequence, in which Mark struggles to shed extra weight before a big tournament, that feels like a sick twist on a familiar trope from the athlete-biopic genre). It’s a portrait of a complex macho love triangle, in which the alternate family unit du Pont and Mark have created together—a twisted and miserable one, but a family all the same—comes into conflict with Mark’s real-life family, as the comparatively sane Dave joins them at the Foxcatcher estate and begins to be pulled into their poisonous dynamic.
The screenplay, by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, is subtle and understated almost to a fault. Several important story beats, including the moment in which Mark begins to feel definitively estranged from both his brother and his benefactor and slides into a downward spiral, seem to take place off screen, so the audience is left guessing as to the motivations for some major decisions on the characters’ parts. Why did Dave eventually allow himself to be “bought,” and for how much? And just why is John du Pont so emotionally hollow and monomaniacally fixated on wrestling, other than as a way to piss off his distant, horse-loving mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave in a sensational two-scene cameo)? As powerful as Foxcatcher can be scene to scene, there’s something maddeningly indistinct about it at times, as if the details that would make it all make sense remain somehow inaccessible to us. This elision may be a deliberate strategy on Miller’s part, but it doesn’t keep some of the film’s middle stretches from feeling repetitive and a little long.
But Miller (who in his previous two films, Capote and Moneyball, showed a similar interest in the power machinations of lonely, obsessive outsiders) doesn’t need a lot of dialogue or backstory to create a haunting mood of tension and menace. Though only the terrifying penultimate scene takes place in the snow, all of Foxcatcher unfolds in an atmosphere of deep chill. Tatum plays the lost and self-destructive Mark with an emotional fragility that contrasts with his absolute physical self-command. (Do we have any other actor of this caliber who can effortlessly perform a standing back flip?) Ruffalo—given the difficult task of playing a man who’s deeply and genuinely good—manages to make Dave much more than a one-dimensional saint, especially in a scene when he’s forced to profess his fealty to his new overlord into the lens of a documentarian’s camera. And Carell takes a potentially freakish part—the capricious, emotionally stunted tycoon living vicariously through the successes of the stable of young men he keeps like horses—and turns it into a frightening vision of the American dream in midcurdle. “U.S.A! U.S.A!” chants a bloodthirsty crowd at a wrestling match in the movie’s heartbreaking final moments, and we realize with a jolt that that delusional affirmation of national supremacy may be what Foxcatcher’s been about all along.