If you're a fan of the sport of wrestling, you may be familiar with the story of the Schultz brothers, a pair of Olympic champs who caught the eye of a millionaire philanthropist following the '84 L.A. Olympics.
But you needn't be a wrestling buff to appreciate this stranger-than-fiction true story, brilliantly dramatized by Cannes prize winner Bennett Miller in Foxcatcher. Just like his swell previous feature Moneyball, what Miller has achieved here is a sports movie that's not actually about the sport, but about something far bigger and more elusive. Incidentally, like Moneyball was in 2011, Foxcatcher is also one of the finest films of the year.
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is obsessed with being the best, but doomed to never feel like the best. Even his Olympic gold medal seems outshone by that of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), whose personal life is far more fulfilled.
Dave is more famous, a better wrestler/coach, a happy family man, and still quietly exudes his protective instincts towards his baby bro. A beautifully staged sparring sequence early in the film between the two brothers tells us everything we need to know about their relationship with hardly a single word of dialogue.
Out of the blue, Mark is given an opportunity to move up from his shabby apartment to more lavish surroundings. He is recruited by John du Pont (Steve Carell) – heir to a family fortune originally built on Civil War gunpowder – to live and train at the Du Ponts' Pennsylvania estate, Faxcatcher Farm.
"3000 men died here," Du Pont proudly informs Mark of a Civil War battlefield near the estate. That's no trifling factoid that screenwriters E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman decide to include, as it immediately casts a shadow of death over the property, just like the overcast skies that perpetually linger in Greig Fraser's striking exterior shots.
Besides being a noted stamp collector and bird expert, Du Pont is also a self-proclaimed patriot and wrestling enthusiast. His grand, deluded dream is to make the U.S. a world power in the sport, aiming to personally house and coach the entire national team at Foxcatcher.
Mark eagerly accepts the offer, but Dave's reluctance to do the same foreshadows the toxic situation that's starting to brew. Du Pont's extreme fixation with winning mirrors Mark's own. Both men are chasing their own proverbial foxes; Some grand ambition that they have no hope of actually achieving.
They are also haunted by their own living kin. For Mark, it's Dave. For Du Pont, it's his equine-loving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who considers wrestling to be quite beneath any member of her family. For both men, to succeed means seceding from some dominant familial figure. And as products of the "U-S-A! U-S-A!" mentality that the film ever so slyly sends up, we know that such a secession will only ever happen through blood.
The details of what went down between Du Pont and the Schultz brothers has been open – but not necessarily common – knowledge since it broke in 1996. Because we know what happens, but neither how nor when, Miller is able to keep us on pins and needles for nearly the entire final half hour as the tension comes to a slow boil.
One of the subtle masterstrokes of Miller's storytelling is how he and production designer Jess Gonchor depict the titular country estate as a character unto itself, immeasurably informing the film's unspoken character conflicts.
Carell even gets his own prosthetic beak to look more like the real man he's playing, although the resemblance is still minimal, and ultimately unimportant. His embodiment of the unstable Du Pont would be just as scary without the physical transformation.
He delivers his lines with a coarse whisper and a hollow gaze that belie a host of psychological complexes clashing in his liver-spotted head. The awards buzz he's garnered is more than merited, but he is among equals in Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. All three men deserve Oscar nominations.
Tatum delivers by far the most intense and internalized performance of his career, softly evoking the pressures of a physically perfect specimen with a dangerously fragile ego. Ruffalo, meanwhile, is solid as a rock in playing a character whose true thoughts and feelings are always lurking beneath the surface of the page. He gets no shocking outburst scene like the other two, but makes just as strong an impact in moments of total silence.
**** out of ****