Review: Fantastic ‘Foxcatcher’ tells true story of wrestlers, murder
Editor’s note: This review was originally published May 19, as part of the Cannes Film Festival coverage.
Mesmerizing in its incremental layering of a bizarre, tragic and thoroughly warped character study, “Foxcatcher” sees director Bennett Miller well surpassing even the fine work he did in his previous films, “Capote” and “Moneyball.”
The story hinges on a shocking murder committed in 1996 by John du Pont, an oddball member of one of the country’s richest families, of Dave Schultz, a former Olympics wrestler who ran the titular training program at the center du Pont built on his Pennsylvania estate.
In 1987, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a dour young man seemingly at a dead end. He was a gold-medal winner in wrestling three years earlier at the Los Angeles Olympic games, but all he can do now is stare at the medals and trophies in his crappy apartment and try to rouse the interest of elementary-school students in sports. His older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also took home wrestling gold and is Mark’s only source of human warmth and love, but he’s in Colorado with his wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller), and their young kids.
Mark could not be more susceptible to persuasion when he’s paged to fly for a visit to the du Pont estate. The host looks like a shrimp compared to his powerfully built guest; he has pasty, colorless skin, a high, whiny voice and posture that emphasizes his pear shape.
While du Pont (Steve Carell) is haughty through money and position, he’s weak in every other way, also seemingly without friends but with a special loathing for his aged imperious mother (a commanding, still stunning Vanessa Redgrave).
Installing Mark in a sumptuous guest house, du Pont inspires him with patriotic statements and how he wants him to win at the forthcoming World Cup games in France and then at the Seoul Olympics the following year.
But it starts becoming evident that du Pont has something else on his mind. He touches Mark, awkwardly and tentatively, whenever he can in a “manly,” congratulatory kind of way. He soon has Mark give him personal wrestling lessons, an obvious excuse for constant physical contact.
The dynamics keep shifting from the Olympics and beyond to the entirely unprovoked climax, a very sorry affair indeed.
It’s a sick, twisted story (with a superb screenplay by E. Max Frye), which is to the credit of the filmmakers for having made fascinating, rewarding and absolutely worth telling.
While Carell dominates with his unexpected performance, he is superbly backed up by his co-stars. Tatum is a smoldering, festering piece of emotional raw meat; you feel his pain. Ruffalo’s Dave has a profoundly genial nature.
Few films are as loaded with, and benefit from, churning subtext such as this one. For a story that unwinds over nearly a decade, the director, along with his writers and three editors, achieve a very fine balance both in the rhythms and overall shaping of the drama.
Todd McCarthy is a film critic for the Hollywood Reporter.