Dark Histories
By Michael Koresky

Dir. Bennett Miller, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics

You can almost see the script’s first page before your eyes. He’s at a podium. “My name is Mark Schultz. I want to talk about America. And I want to tell you why I wrestle.” It’s the first major chunk of dialogue in Foxcatcher, and it’s clear where the emphasis is meant to lie. This is a film that’s going to talk to us about America—a film of import and gravity. We might have already gleaned this from the mournful strings and tinny piano that accompany the credits and start as early as the film’s Sony logo. We can also tell from the unremitting glumness that descends over the film from the opening frames, a view of eighties suburban Pittsburgh purgatory. It’s here that Channing Tatum’s down-on-his-luck Olympic Gold medalist Schultz lives a life of ascetic loneliness, sitting in empty pre-Internet rooms of stygian gloom and stifling boredom in between practice bouts with his brother and fellow former Olympian, David (Mark Ruffalo). It’s here that Mark breaks apart the saddest bowl of microwaveable ramen in history.

Bennett Miller’s bleakly efficient film is not only about America. It’s also about masculinity, brotherhood, fatherhood, class, competition, the drive for self-definition and expression. (It’s about just about everything except, of course, women, save one looming, destructive mother figure.) In this way, the true story it’s based on is a real jackpot: a ripped-from-the-headlines scandal exploitable for its simmering-turned-sensational class warfare and for the lie it so easily gives to that vague concept known as the American Dream. But this is America by way of Transylvania: Mark is summoned, Jonathan Harker–like, to the looming, suburban Philadelphia mansion of the du Pont family, where he meets his Nosferatu—eccentric millionaire and wayward son John E. du Pont, played by Steve Carell with an enormous prosthetic nose, and a curious, birdlike arch of the neck. “We as a nation failed to honor you,” this wraithlike man tells Mark with a faraway stare and troublesome composure that makes it seem like he’s trying to commune with the dead. As presented by Miller, DuPont, who’s all too eager to self-identify as “an ornithologist, a philatelist, and most importantly a patriot,” is not just a descendant of one of the country’s wealthiest families, he’s the walking and talking manifestation of its sadnesses, its ivory-tower loneliness and blinkered privilege. Despite John’s unsettling eccentricities, Mark cannot resist—or even refuse, probably—his offer: John will coach and financially support him for his potential comeback in the upcoming 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Instantly, there’s conflict, as David, now a committed family man, doesn’t want to join Mark as he goes beyond the iron gates of the du Pont world, regardless of the athletic glory promised to them.

The ominous approach Miller takes (his stock in trade following the vividly glum Capote and even Moneyball, which felt like it was trudging toward some tragic denouement even as it so thoroughly entertained) leaves little room for doubt that it will end any way other than miserably. Yet there are pleasures along the way, most of which come, unsurprisingly, via Ruffalo, who again throws himself full weight into a character without it seemingly like he’s expended any effort. Thanks to Ruffalo, here stocky and moving with a slightly simian gait, Tatum finally has a sparring partner who can, to use an aptly sporty term, unlock his potential. Tatum is distant but empathetic—his stiff, hollow muscle-head stare speaks to self-negation, and when he walks his legs look like two tree trunks trying to move in tandem. With Ruffalo next to him, he becomes agile: their brotherly chemistry—whether during times of camaraderie or anger—is palpable, as when they wrap their arms around each other during warm-ups, desperate brotherly hugs as much as muscle exercises. And in their wrestling practices, succinctly and persuasively edited to make Tatum and Ruffalo look professional, these actors attain a strange physical grace, like tussling angels.

Then they get weighted down, not only by the film’s somber atmospherics but also latex. Foxcatcher treads an uncomfortable line between naturalism and grotesquerie, the latter borne out in the befuddling decision to make both protagonist and antagonist slightly exaggerated physical caricatures—Tatum with cauliflower ears, protruding pouty jaw, and bulbous nose and Carell with his over-emphatic Salem’s Lot makeup. The effect is particularly unfortunate for Carell, whose performance, despite whatever plaudits he’s sure to receive for playing “against type,” comes across as an idea of hauntedness rather than a true physical inhabitation. Carell excels at awkwardness, and his wince-inducing, socially inept, tone-deaf du Pont is not particularly far in spirit and effect from his Michael Scott on The Office—which is oddly a more naturalistic, less exaggerated role than that in Miller’s sober drama. Here, he’s a compendium of pregnant pauses, grimaces, and pained hesitations.

The portrayal of du Pont is the film’s central conundrum. Though Foxcatcher would appear to cast an air of general empathy, it is ultimately pitiless in the way it builds the character of du Pont, in reality a quite tragic schizophrenic, into a vampiric villain. The film’s entertainment value seems predicated upon making du Pont either ridiculous (“Most of my friends will call me Eagle or Golden Eagle,” the apparently friendless du Pont says with a straight face), pathetic (he talks about his mother paying his classmates to befriend him when he was a child), or predatory (he drags Mark out in the middle of the night for homoerotic practice in a gallery in the mansion, framed pictures of du Pont ancestors glaring from the walls). It’s by distancing us from him that Miller tries to get at the film’s central ideas, which seem to be about the notion of a specifically American legacy and how people with or without money view themselves in the grand scheme. This du Pont is all sad, broad strokes, less a character (or even person) than a symbol of diseased dynasty and social inbreeding.

Behind every near-catatonic, gun-toting, world-resenting man-child there’s a mean mommy, and Foxcatcher has a dilly in Vanessa Redgrave’s forbidding Jean du Pont. An ashen, wheelchair-bound, Welsh Pony breeder, this family phantom only appears late in the film, as though her presence itself is the film’s big reveal—an explanation for John’s antisocial extremes. Foxcatcher’s own Mrs, Bates, Jean du Pont is the real villain, a woman who dares to tell her son that “Wrestling is a low sport,” a truism that is meant to cut like a knife when delivered in such tones of unsupportive haughtiness. After mother dies, John releases her thoroughbreds, letting them run free—a late symbolic touch in a film lousy with them—before endeavoring to transform Foxcatcher Farm into a training center for professional American wrestlers.

The film is besotted with Carell’s damaged crackpot, and as he takes up most of the spotlight, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a handle on Tatum’s lunkhead pseudo-protagonist, especially as their bond turns sadomasochistic: at one point John slaps Mark and calls him an “ungrateful ape.” He enacts this public humiliation when Mark refuses to try and coerce David into coming to Foxcatcher. The brother becomes John’s idée fixe; perhaps the millionaire is clearly fascinated and horrified that he is unable to buy someone. As a result, John encourages the easily persuadable Mark to distance himself from David. The resultant gap between the brothers only grows larger when David finally agrees to come and stay at the du Pont estate, to help train Mark and look over him. Their formerly tight bond is agonizingly frayed due to the machinations of their monstrously insecure overseer, culminating in the final humiliation (beautifully acted by Ruffalo) of David having to lie on camera for a cheap promotional video that John is his true mentor.

[spoilers ahead] The terrible crime that comes out of all this and which gives the film its sad reason for being feels more like epilogue than logical narrative climax. This might be because Foxcatcher’s chronology of true events is a bit cagey: though the film is ostensibly set entirely in the late eighties, du Pont’s shooting and killing of David Schultz occurred in 1996. Like du Pont’s schizophrenia, the passage of years is elided, so that the murder seems a direct result of the film’s finessed, Shakespearean tragedy as well as a natural endpoint to its portrayal of a Reagan-era struggle between the haves and have-nots. In trying to make the killing fit, to ensure that the senseless makes sense, the filmmakers achieve the opposite: the murder itself comes across as a last ditch effort to provide metaphorical closure to a story that has no answers.