The darkness in Foxcatcher overwhelms. The slow, controlled burn of director Bennett Miller's vision is one of doom. The camera watches, helpless to intervene in the lives it witnesses, or the death. Foxcatcher defies description in many ways. It's a character study, but the subject is an event, not a person, and therefore it studies the country where the event takes place. Miller reveals little about the film's most interesting character: the killer John Du Pont, played by Steve Carell. He seems to be more interested in the genesis of the crime than the crime itself.
Based on a true story, Foxcatcher is an account of the events leading up to the murder of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) in 1996. But Dave is merely a supporting player in this tragedy. The film opens on his little brother, Mark (Channing Tatum), another Gold medal winner whose ignorance, helplessness, and need to escape Dave's shadow indirectly gets his brother killed.
Miller's past films (Capote, Moneyball) are heavy on American themes and he continues this interest in Foxcatcher. Through Mark, the movie conveys the shoddy way our country forgets its Olympic heroes. The champion lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to make ends meet. Unlike Dave, Mark has no family and no connections. But, like many Americans, Mark yearns for something more.
Enter John Du Pont "of the Du Pont family," a millionaire who calls Mark one day out of the blue and invites him to his Pennsylvania estate, nicknamed "Foxcatcher Farms." Mark has no idea who this guy is or what he wants, but he discovers upon arriving that Du Pont is a wrestling fan who insists he wants to see the country, and Mark, succeed. He asks Mark what his goals are and by the end of the conversation, has offered to give the wrestler a job and place to live at Foxcatcher in exchange for training at Du Pont's brand new facility. "Team Foxcatcher" is born and soon Mark has found new life training with other athletes with an eye on the World Championships.
But let's back up a little. Before Team Foxcatcher, we get to know Mark, Dave, and their brotherly dynamic. Both men won gold at the '84 Olympics, but Dave is the revered one—the consensus best American wrestler. In preparation for the role, both Tatum and Ruffalo underwent intense training for months. Their first scene together is a strangely intimate and primal dance of the wrestlers. The brothers hug and pull on each other like nuzzling lions—lifting, stretching, rubbing against one another to loosen up. Then they ease into a one on one, Dave easily handling Mark until BANG, the younger Schultz headbutts the elder with a frustrated cheap shot. Bloodied, Dave shakes it off and dominates Mark into submission.
The Schultz brothers relationship is key to Foxcatcher, but the relationship between Mark and Du Pont weighs heaviest. In Du Pont, Mark finds a father figure, a preacher, and a sponsor all in one. He's too introverted to realize the millionaire is a schizophrenic and too obtuse to read between the lines. The warning signs—Du Pont bringing a gun to practice, his wariness of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who lives on the grounds, but is rarely seen—go over Mark's head. Even Du Pont's deliberate, strange way of speaking doesn't register. Mark believes in Du Pont as a man and, more than that, loves him for giving him a life of his own. When Du Pont tells him in earnest, "Call me Eagle... or Golden Eagle." Schultz simply nods along. When he hands Mark cocaine and a mirror, Mark nods along.
Du Pont purports to bleed red, white, and blue, which initially attracts Mark. He says he "wants to see the country soar again." And he's able to lure other athletes, even Dave eventually, to the estate under the guise of fabricated patriotism. Rich people get what they want in America, especially if they pretend to care about the country, and Du Pont gets what he wants: a purpose. He buys his friends and they tolerate him for the money despite how delusional he becomes. John has a family legacy to live up to and a mother to impress. His schizophrenia is never mentioned or discussed. By all accounts, he's just a harmless rich guy, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Foxcatcher is an evisceration of rich entitlement in America.
The thin narrative explains Foxcatcher's lack of depth character-wise. The reality of the story was nobody knew or cared to know Du Pont was a lunatic at the time, so Miller doesn't get into it. Du Pont's actions, not his pathology, are the story. Hindsight allows us to investigate after the fact, just as in real life. Miller's subtle, precise direction allows the story to play out as realistically as possible, and therein lies the film's terror. He turns theater-goers into witnesses.
Foxcatcher builds slowly to its brutal end as relationships crumble and are rebuilt. The film is a brilliant reconstruction of a fascinating time and place, but none of it would work without the three main characters. Tatum gives the best performance of his career as the sullen Mark Schultz, his underbite physical proof of his dedication. Ruffalo is equally impressive, giving Dave an everyman's likability while remaining formidable as an athlete. And Carell, for all the hype surrounding this role all year, lives up to it and then some. His is the signature transformative performance of 2014. Du Pont will change the trajectory of his career if he so chooses.