The inevitable thought of death staking claim to our last breath is frightening, but that fear grows deeper when we realize we may have nothing beyond what’s carved into our tombstone. Listen, I don’t typically like vomiting up cynical ideas, but not all of us are special. Don’t get me wrong, we are all unique people, but only a select few of us attract the flashbulbs and notoriety of the culture at large. The rest of us are small pieces of a massive puzzle, with our existence quivering under the sizable shadow of a select few. The improbability of becoming a privileged, canonized human being drives many down an inscrutable path paved with questionable decision-making. Our dedication to become legendary can evoke a desperation so incapacitating, we blindly look past all the obvious warning signs. In Bennett Miller’s excellent Foxcatcher, a hunger for glory evokes a murderous result.
Based on a true story, Foxcatcher opens up in the mid 80’s with wrestling gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) giving a flaccid, awkward speech at an elementary school. Mark, who actually replaced his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) for the speech, receives $20 for his story. Sure, it’s money, but it’s a vulgar insult against a man who captured glory for his country. All Mark can do is return home to his generic apartment, where ramen and loneliness wait for his company. Even though he is, by Olympic standards, on the same level of his older brother, Mark pales in comparison to Dave’s reputation. Growing distant from his older brother, Mark accepts a training offer from the eccentric John du Pont (Steve Carell), a self-ascribed wrestling enthusiast, who is the heir of the du Pont fortune. Mark, without Dave by his side for the first time in his life, moves on to du Pont’s Pennsylvania property. There, Mark gains control of Team Foxcatcher, a wrestling team du Pont believes will resurrect America’s pride at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Unbridled ambition sours into frustration, respect mutates into disdain, and the American dream slowly becomes a tragic nightmare, as du Pont and the Schultz brothers deviate on points of success and control.
Even though the film’s true crime status never leaves the ending in doubt, Foxcatcher is a gripping and devastating look at desire consuming moral decorum. Bennett Miller, who has become one of the more underappreciated auteurs in the film business, establishes a chilling mood from the beginning. Through the lens of cinematographer Greig Fraser, Miller slowly grinds away at our nerves through shots overrun by thickening fog, decaying land and sickly grey skies. These visual cues embolden the isolation within Mark and du Pont, as both men desperately seek legitimacy in the wrestling world and within their family. The foreboding tone also sets the stage for the impending distrust between the wrestler and the faux leader, leaving us arrested from beginning to end. For as visually damning as the film is, Miller’s biggest achievement within the frame is utilizing the physicality of his characters to unnerving ends. From the hunched over posture of Ruffalo to Tatum treating his head like a punching bag, Miller alienates us through physical mutilation.
With that being said, there’s also an elegance to how Miller shoots many of the film’s physical scenes, especially the sparring matches between Mark and Dave. We see the genesis of their relationship through slaps, slams and grapples. Tatum delivers a career defining performance by harnessing emotional and physical beats reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix’s twisted work in The Master. Ruffalo, with his bent frame, gives the film its beating heart, but also its victim. For as great as Tatum and Ruffalo are, Carell is the true stand out. When we first meet Carell as du Pont, his makeup is admittedly distracting. But as the film progresses, and Carrell slowly reveals du Pont’s professional inadequacies and narcissistic tendencies, he embodies the monster du Pont inevitably became. It’s a frightening performance from an unexpected source, in one of the year’s best films. It’s not an easy watch, but Foxcatcher serves as a tangible cautionary tale for those seeking social divinity. The risk isn’t always worth the reward.