True-Life "Foxcatcher" Burns Slowly, Beautifully

“Ornithologist. Philatelist. Philanthropist.” Perched in the cabin of his personal helicopter, hook-nosed multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) repeats those three words like the chorus of a love song he’s penned to himself. He is the decade he inhabits, lousy with the unearned confidence of Reagan’s 80s, his cocaine-dusted tuxedo a mere accessory to the strangeness of the scene. With each hit of blow, his blank expression progresses into crooked grin. His three-word mantra is so lovingly spoken, his ego so uncontrollably high that it’s unclear who’s raising whom – du Pont or the helicopter?

“Ornithologist. Philatelist. Philanthropist.” Across the cabin, Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) joins in on DuPont’s refrain, wisely indulging the eccentric heir who’s so enthusiastically taken him under his wing. Having spent the years prior tucked away in the shadow of his older, more successful brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), Mark has found a kindred spirit and financial benefactor in DuPont – rare in the world at large, even rarer in the world of wrestling. As the duo begin to cackle, director Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”) points at the dark heart of his stranger-than-fiction drama – one that’s almost all wick, burning slowly but brightly.

Although a biographical drama on its surface, “Foxcatcher” – named after du Pont’s estate, Foxcatcher Farm – is a true-life romance at heart, as only America can author. Whether it’s the jilted lover that the mostly sexless du Pont becomes or the Schultz brothers’ feverish passion for their sport, Bennett’s film is about love and its most dangerous permutations – the kind of thick, humid love that can drive a man to the edge. With money and mental illness thrown into the mix, the narrative becomes understandably combustible. Whether viewers are familiar with the endgame or not, it all makes for an unforgettable 2 hour and 10 minute trip.

The film opens in a wrestling room on a solitary Mark Schultz. He wrestles with a faceless dummy, throwing it about like rag doll, kept company by harsh fluorescent lights and the sound of his own grunting. Without so much as a line of dialogue, Miller has already set up some of the themes of his film – crushing loneliness, latent homoeroticism, explosive rage. Soon, we’re off to the du Pont estate and its various skeleton-filled closets. Here, John du Pont suffers the fidgety boredom that comes with vast wealth and its oft-accompanying mommy-daddy issues. In DuPont’s case, it’s his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) whose social stature looms large, nearly enveloping him.

In need of an outlet – any kind of outlet – du Pont summons the Schultz brothers to his home with an offer to house and coach a world-class wrestling team. Mark arrives alone and accepts, with Dave remaining behind with his family. DuPont bristles at Dave’s absence, but the pair move forward without him, emboldened to prove their doubters – real or imagined – wrong. At first, John’s delusions of grandeur and assembly-line patriotism gel comfortably with Dave’s natural ability. The newly emblazoned Foxcatcher Farm catches on in the world of wrestling. Its keeper’s significant quirks written off as just that – quirks.

With the introduction of casually wielded drugs and handguns and wanton physical contact between DuPont and Mark Schultz, Miller gradually reveals the frayed edges of his beaked subject. John du Pont is not well, treating his wrestlers like possessions and his possessions like children’s toys. His lack of self-awareness is stunning, his growing paranoia only soothed by his own self-aggrandizement. When Dave Schultz finally agrees to become part of Team Foxcatcher, the DuPonts and Schultzes are finally one, as they have been in John’s head for some time, setting into motion the events of the film’s third act.

As a psychological snapshot alone, Miller’s film is absolutely worthwhile. Screenwriting vets E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman are at the top of their game here, striking an ideal balance between insight and mystery, allowing the cast plenty of open space with which to explore their characters. Quiet moments abound, with Carell and Tatum speaking volumes in body language alone. But Miller’s vast talents also extend to the visual realm, and the film’s imagery crackles with bad vibes. He and cinematographer Greig Fraser make the most of their many establishing shots, finding melancholy in the flat, barren landscape of Foxcatcher Farm and great disquiet in the slow, deliberate roll of DuPont’s silver Lincoln Town Car.

The remarkable work from Carell and Tatum is merely icing on top, with neither actor succumbing to the weight of his make-up. Neither looks exactly like a normal person here, but in the context of the story, they’re not normal people, allowing for delicately dichotomous performances. Without heightened appearances on the part of the leads, the aggressively subtle screenplay might have outright evaporated. These are odd individuals that should look odd. “Handsome Channing Tatum” or “goofy Steve Carell” these characters aren’t, requiring a hefty layer of something – in this case, latex – to separate them from the performers.

Ruffalo’s role, while not as large, is the story’s crux. As the final piece of John du Pont’s harebrained pet project – his own veritable boy band groomed for his asexual pleasure – Ruffalo is perfect, his gift for disarming sincerity serving as an ideal wedge between John and Mark. With the entirety of the cast, but Ruffalo especially, Bennett Miller shoots in medium close-up – both physically and emotionally – keeping us at arm’s length as a means to keep our rapt attention throughout its restrained ebbs and flows. And “Foxcatcher” is nothing if not restrained, in the best sense of the word.

The film fires healthily on both a micro and macro level, from its smallest moments to its most sinister throughlines, Miller proving himself exceptionally gifted with scale. Viewers that can attune to the picture’s deliberately unhurried rhythm will reap great reward, while those expecting a broader work might leave disappointed. But if any film in 2014 is worth the patience, it’s “Foxcatcher” – the kind of timeless, rib-sticking drama that moviegoers often lament the loss of, only to ignore when they actually come around. Don’t make that mistake here.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 14, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenwriter: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall
MPAA Rating: R (for some drug use and a scene of violence)