The desire to win is eclipsed by the aching need for love and acceptance in Bennett Miller’s riveting true life drama that is akin to a light being slowly extinguished.
More disquieting than many horror movies, the nauseating dread that Foxcatcher instills grips like a cold and clammy hand around the throat and refuses to let go well after the credits have rolled.
Just as Miller’s previous film Moneyball (2011) uses a sport (baseball) to explore the insecurities and fallibilities of men, the wrestling of Foxcatcher is of a more metaphorical nature.
While the surroundings of John du Pont’s (Steve Carell) Foxcatcher estate are as grandiose as they are expansive, the dark skies that hang overhead like a guillotine tell a very different and troubling story.
Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is flown out to the estate at the behest of du Pont, who announces that he wants Mark to lead his wrestling squad, ‘Team Foxcatcher’, and win gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
While they come from opposite ends of the societal spectrum, Mark and du Pont are very alike; each man lives in the shadow of another, lacks a father and has a burning desire to be recognised for their own achievements.
Talk of glory and “making America great again” may strike a chord, but it is a delusion both men are willing to believe for their own sake. Mark has long lived in the shadow of his more popular and charismatic older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who is also a gold medal-winning wrestler, but has a stable family with wife Nancy (Sienna Miller, who has little to do) and their kids; while the sense of entitlement and arrogance inherent in du Pont is undercut by the inadequacy he feels in the presence of his aged mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who views wrestling as a ‘low’ sport.
Du Pont’s state-of-the-art facilities and Mark’s natural ability initially make for a formidable team, but Mark’s self-destructive nature and Du Pont’s unpredictability breeds a toxicity that is allowed to fester, especially when Dave is lured to Team Foxcatcher with promises of wealth and greatness.
The impressive Tatum plays Mark as a pathetic, childlike figure ripe for exploitation. From his hunched, shuffling gait to his monosyllabism, the glory of winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics has been replaced by an emptiness no amount of medals can fill.
An early scene has Mark giving a talk about winning to a bunch of bored and confused schoolkids and upon receiving the cheque we discover it’s his brother the school had originally booked before it cuts to Mark standing in line for a burger which he hides away in his car to eat.
Later in the film, du Pont suddenly gets more hands on with training when he spies his mother being wheeled in. While the team is content to indulge the show, she is soon bored and quickly leaves; with his most important audience gone, du Pont takes a back seat once more.
These moments speak to the fraudulence of both men and subtly shift the ground beneath our feet so we are never certain of what either will do next. Some have cited the film’s slow pacing as being glacial and boring, but that’s to miss the coiling tension that Miller winds up before exploding into acts of random violence.
Much has been made of the training session scene between Mark and Dave that speaks volumes about each brother without either barely saying a word. It’s one of a number of examples where the visuals and reactions of characters do more than a thousand lines of dialogue ever can.
Tatum has never been better and holds his own against Ruffalo, who has the more difficult role of a man torn between his family, the love he has for his brother and the temptation of du Pont’s pay cheque. Carell, meanwhile, disappears into the role of du Pont, imbuing him with a Nosferatu-esque stillness and a detachment that only a man of his great wealth could have. Whilst he looks down his considerable nose on those around him, his heavy-lidded eyes disguise an unnerving capriciousness.
The American Dream is writ large on many films, but rarely has it been so perverted than in the mesmeric Foxcatcher.