“It’s just cocaine,” one character tells another midway through director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. “It’s not going to kill you.” In a typical Hollywood film, this is what we would call “foreshadowing.” Subsequent scenes would portray one or both characters descending into a spiral of drug addiction, with terrible but eminently predictable consequences.
But Foxcatcher is not a typical Hollywood film. Miller (who previously directed Capote and Moneyball) doesn’t offer the customary narrative and emotional signposts that tell viewers what events to expect and, after they’ve occurred, how we are meant to understand them. Miller is admirably spare with backstory, and cagey when it comes to laying out his characters’ motivations. Though the tale concerns two self-evidently damaged men, the source and nature of their injuries is never made explicit. People commit acts, some of them unexpected and one of them tragic, and we’re largely left to sort them out ourselves. You know: as in actual life. It’s a refreshing cinematic approach.
The story is based on the true story of three men: the erratic millionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell); the Olympic-gold-medal-winning wrestler he takes on as a protégé, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum); and Mark’s older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a gold-medalist wrestler. You may recall from the news how these relationships played out, but if you don’t, I’m not going to remind you. The less you know about the events in question, the better. (It should be noted here that although Miller recounts the overall narrative faithfully, he takes numerous liberties with the details.)
The story begins with Mark in 1987. Despite having won Olympic gold in Los Angeles three years earlier, his life is devoid of glamour. He lives in a crummy walk-up apartment in the sticks, subsisting on ramen noodles and hot sauce. When he’s paid $20 to mumble awkwardly to a bunch of middle-schoolers about the importance of wrestling and “America,” he receives the check with equal parts embarrassment and gratitude. There’s something perceptibly off about Mark: He is wary and ill at ease, his prominent jaw thrust outward as if to deflect the inevitable blows that life has in store for him.
Mark’s sole apparent point of human contact is his brother Dave, who serves as his coach, sparring partner, and surrogate dad. That is, until he receives a phone call on behalf of “John E. du Pont, of the du Pont family,” who wants Mark to come visit him at his ancestral estate in Pennsylvania, Foxcatcher Farm. “I’m a wrestling coach,” the fiftyish millionaire tells him, earnestly if implausibly. “And I wanted to talk to you about your future.” Specifically, du Pont—who in time will reveal himself also to be a self-styled patriot, author, ornithologist, philanthropist, philatelist, and former pentathlete—would like Mark to come to Foxcatcher to train for the upcoming world championships and, following them, the Seoul Olympics.
Mark accepts the invitation to join “Team Foxcatcher”—du Pont has helpfully emblazoned the logo on every flat surface and article of clothing within reach—along with a handful of other wrestlers including, eventually, his brother Dave. What unfolds is largely a character study of two decidedly odd characters. Like Mark, du Pont was raised fatherless (in both cases, their parents divorced when they were two), and like him he is missing crucial elements of the software of adulthood. Thus the hobbies, the model trains, the delusional belief in his talents as a wrestling coach, and the desperate need for affirmation by his disapproving, horse-obsessed mother (Vanessa Redgrave). He has even taken to pretending that his middle initial, for “Eleuthere,” is instead short for “Eagle.” And so the two man-children pinball off one another, at times affectionately and at times angrily, their collisions tempered, when possible, by Dave, the sole non-lunatic in this particular asylum.
Foxcatcher is an actor’s film, and the three leads all deliver unexpected performances. Tatum is sullen and closed-off as Mark, the frightened kid in a man’s body. (A decade or so ago, this role would inevitably have gone to Mark Wahlberg.) Carell’s transformation into the foggy, obliviously self-important du Pont—assisted by the makeup wizardry of Bill Corso—is nothing short of remarkable. Eyelids heavy, chin receding, his head resembles nothing so much as an egg from which his nose protrudes like a beak breaking the shell. (The performance was informed by hours upon hours of footage of the real du Pont, who had a penchant for commissioning documentaries of himself.) But it’s Ruffalo who gives the film’s best performance. As the decent, sober-minded Dave, he has no shtick to fall back on, no exaggerated mannerisms or prosthetic enhancements. His work is a reminder that often “normal” is the hardest role of all. (Tatum and Ruffalo are also to be commended for the extraordinary amount of training it took for them to plausibly represent Olympic wrestlers, both on and off the mat.)
Miller was initially attracted to making a film about du Pont and the Schultzes after a stranger handed him an envelope of newspaper clippings regarding the events in question. He researched the story for more than a year before enlisting screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and the resulting film maintains an almost reportorial distance. There are clear sexual undercurrents, for instance—it is, after all, a movie about a wealthy weirdo who invites a bunch of sweaty young wrestlers to come live with him—but Miller does not tip the scale one way or the other on the subject. He declines, too, to offer explicit diagnoses of the psychological maladies under which his two principal protagonists labor.
And yet, as commendable as I find Miller’s refusal to force his story into a tidy narrative frame, to commit to one interpretation of the events or another, Foxcatcher is a reminder, too, of why this path is so rarely chosen. There’s something inevitably remote about a movie that refuses so ardently to get into the heads of its characters. The result is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one in which to invest emotionally, even when it enters into its final, tragic arc. Foxcatcher is among the best movies of the year, but ultimately it seems one better suited for awards than for audiences.