The thing about Foxcatcher is that it isn’t really a sports movie, even though it features sports. (Whiplash, on the other hand, has all the hallmarks of that genre, even though it was about music.) It does concern itself with the US Olympic wrestling team and their sponsor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, John Du Pont, but like the great film it is, it simply uses the inherent drama in this real-life story to tell a better, larger one.
The formula for a movie like this usually involves some sort of “fish out of water” character that can serve as a good audience proxy for exposition. (Director Bennet Miller’s previous film, Moneyball, had several such sequences, but that only helped tell the story. Here, it would be out of place.) Nothing about Olympic wrestling is explained, either in dialogue between characters or in montages or even the most basic instructions. Even now, having watched the whole movie, which has quite a bit of wrestling, I’m unsure of the rules and the dynamics of the sport. None of it matters. As long as you understand that wrestling is essentially about pinning your opponent to the ground in some way for a certain period of time, you understand everything necessary to appreciate this film.
The story picks up in 1987, with 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) speaking at high schools for $20 a pop and living a marginal existence on Mr Noodle in a cheap apartment. Such is the respect America has for its Olympic athletes, so goes the implicit message. He and his brother David (Mark Ruffalo) still work out regularly at the gym, waiting for trials for the Seoul Olympics and the World Championships. In these first, slow scenes, we get a sense of the film’s deliberate, steady pace. It’s a movie with a lot of silence, a lot of muttered or irrelevant dialogue, but a strong core purpose.
Into this poverty-stricken world of amateur sport comes John Eluthere du Pont (Steve Carell), an odd rich aristocratic heir to the famous chemical company fortune, who lives on a sprawling estate near Valley Forge called “Foxcatcher”. This is a man so rich, and so removed from the real world, that he helicopters to and from his estate, even when he’s just going into New York for dinner, and as a child his mother paid another boy to be his friend. The real John du Pont had a PhD in ornithology and had contributed significantly to the study of bird species in the south Pacific, but his social isolation and desperate need for validation and connection are completely authentic. As played by Steve Carell in heavy makeup, du Pont is a person who simply never developed social skills. He has a tendency to look off into space when upset, has an expression that’s halfway between disgust and confusion and has a deeply ingrained sense that anything can be bought.
Du Pont certainly has everything that money can buy, and we’re repeatedly given examples of his lavish lifestyle and lack of connection to reality. For his home videos, for example, that he makes, getting people to say on camera how great he is, he hires a professional videography team and the home productions even include music and credits. His trophy room is bursting with awards, all for horses – not for racing, but for breeding, the ultimate rich person’s sport.
He also is full of patriotic speeches and superficially patriotic odes to America and free enterprise. This is rather odd coming from someone who lives like a King and hires people to like him – free enterprise wasn’t designed to keep someone like him in expensive scotch. But he spouts all the right conservative phrases and thus is invited regularly to speak at events, for political organizations he supports.
In fact, everyone is in awe of John, probably out of some sort of ancestral response to wealth equalling wisdom and power. And here we have one of the main themes of the film: how deferential someone is willing to be to someone else, simply based on financial support and social class difference. Mark, who du Pont first approaches about supporting the wrestling team, is cautious, but not so much that he doesn’t go and visit du Pont and warmly accept his offer of money, a training facility, and a huge house to live in (which du Pont causally dismisses as a “chalet”). Mark is told to recruit several other people to form a genuine US Olympic team, to bring back the gold medal from Seoul and “Make America proud of itself,” as du Pont keeps repeating.
Without getting too far off track – du Pont’s notion of Olympics as a proxy for international political and socioeconomic power relations is not completely out to lunch. As Chuck Klosterman once wrote, and I agree, the problem with Olympic games is that they bring out the most simplistic, must dunderheaded form of nationalism possible. You’re supposed to cheer for someone because they hold the same passport and no other reason. Some people, like Klosterman and I, see that as dangerous and weird knee-jerk behaviour that ultimately doesn’t advance anything other than reducing nations to the level of a high school sports rally. But to people like du Pont, this superficial and ultimately meaningless title means everything, because his sense of patriotism is based on symbols, not ideas, and his entire life is preoccupied with projecting a certain very carefully stage-managed image. To the athletes in the games, of course they take it seriously: they’re competitive athletes and their efforts are honest and genuine. But du Pont represents the sort of empty, flag-waving moocher, found on the periphery of this sort of sport. By taking advantage of the fact that private industry and the sort of economics he so vehemently supports left Mark Schultz in poverty, du Pont is able to incorporate himself into that sort of glory, buying himself a piece of the limelight.
The film takes the form of long, quiet scenes that are coiled with tension. When is Mark going to snap and say to this weird old guy, “Get your hands off me, you weirdo!” And when is du Pont going to snap? These questions carry through right to the end of the narrative. (They both snapped, as a quick wikipedia search will tell anyone.) Miller keeps things pulled very tight, if you’re paying attention, through each scene, one building upon the other. It’s masterful screenwriting and filmmaking, helped of course by the inherent drama in the real-life narrative, but told with such precision and skill.
The performances of all three principals, Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, are extremely impressive. We’ve already mentioned Carell, and the stock phrase is that he “disappears” into the role of du Pont, but I rather see it as a dramatic role that is of a piece with many of the comedic roles he’s played. Michael Scott isn’t that different from John du Pont in many ways: both are arrested man-children who play at being adults but in fact were seemingly never taught simple rules of social behavior. Both characters are desperate to be liked and espouse values they do not live by. And both are deeply delusional. In fact, a fair thumbnail description of John du Pont would be “Michael Scott with millions of dollars”. Channing Tatum is brilliant as Mark Schultz, portraying the various physical changes he goes through over the years, but most importantly playing the internal tension. His role isn’t about the lines, but about how he holds himself and listens, and this is a real challenge for a lesser actor. Here, Tatum decisively proves that he’s not just a “big hunk”: he can really act. Ruffalo is utterly authentic as family-man David, believable from the first instant. With just a few gestures and expressions from those sad eyes, we know David has forgotten more about wrestling than we’ll ever know. And his causal interactions with his wife and children seem more like documentary footage.
Foxcatcher has Oscar-bait all over it, and it will probably make a strong showing, but before the hype builds any further, it deserves a look from anyone interested in excellent modern American cinema.