Foxcatcher

January 31, 2015
Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher' (2014)
Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher' (2014)

Sport in film is invariably used as a way of exploring human ambitions, the dizzy heights of success and the misery of failure. The game is always the game of life with its inevitable winners and losers. There have been sports dramas, comedies and musicals, but Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a rare phenomenon: a sporting horror film, in which Steve Carrell plays the mad doctor and Channing Tatum the ingénue.

This may sound like a classic B movie, but Foxcatcher is more chiller than thriller – a slow-paced descent into madness set on an isolated estate in Pennsylvania. It is the story of John E. Du Pont (Carell) heir to a great American fortune, born of gunpowder and chemicals. Although he is one of the richest men in the United States, Du Pont is a misfit obsessed with ornithology, guns and wrestling.

He has equipped the family property, Foxcatcher, with a state-of-the art wrestling studio, and aims to host the national team. The problem is that he sees himself as a dream coach and mentor when he is no more than an amateur. It is money, not ability, that lures the wrestlers to Du Pont’s camp. The sole exception may be Mark Schultz (Tatum), a gold medallist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, who shares the same patriotic values as his patron. Mark is the first convert to Foxcatcher’s stable, but he is a disturbed, introverted personality who has always been chronically dependent on his older brother and fellow champion wrestler, Dave (Mark Ruffalo).

Despite his wealth, Du Pont tells Mark that he has never had a friend, apart from a boy his mother hired for that purpose. Mark has been equally friendless, and the two establish a strange kind of friendship with homosexual overtones. While grooming Mark for the Olympics Du Pont introduces him to cocaine and other distractions that mess with his mind.

When Du Pont realises Mark is failing, he calls on brother Dave, who soon brings the other wrestlers into line. Yet Dave is too intelligent to give Du Pont the adulation he craves. Placed in front of a camera and asked to praise his coach and mentor, Dave squirms with discomfort. The connections between Du Pont and both brothers become increasingly strained, finally ending in tragedy.

Although he sees himself as a Svengali, Du Pont is a textbook sociopath who talks in a monotone and stares coldly at everyone. It is a stunning performance from Steve Carell, virtually unrecognisable under prosthetic make-up that alters the line of his forehead and nose. Du Pont says people call him the Golden Eagle, as if in recognition of his patriotism, but it is more likely a reference to his beak of a nose.

Du Pont radiates an unpleasant aura that makes every human contact forced and unpleasant. His mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who cares only for thoroughbred horses, tells him wrestling is a “low” sport of which she disapproves. For Du Pont it is his only avenue for human contact, as he grapples playfully with the wrestlers in a rather blatant form of sexual sublimation. A scene in which Du Pont demonstrates his coaching expertise in front of his mother will have viewers sinking into their seats in embarrassment.

Much of the story revolves around the personalities of the Schultz brothers, with Mark being painfully inarticulate, given to fits of brooding, or explosive violence; while Dave is the opposite – a family man, a thinker, a natural leader. Mark needs Dave, but has come to resent his own inadequacy. These roles represent a career high point for both Tatum and Ruffalo, who begin the film with a training session that resembles a brotherly embrace, almost a slow dance, but soon turns brutal.

Foxcatcher is about the relationships that men form with each other, be they brothers-in-arms or would-be father and son. It examines the painful dynamics of families, from the lop-sided relations of the Schultz brothers, to Du Pont’s woeful attempts to impress his domineering – and disappointed – mother. Finally it is a story about America, where wealth is power, and a rich sociopath can rearrange reality to suit his own delusions. Songs such as This Land is Your Land are included with ironic intent.

A slow, starkly-beautiful film, with a minimal score, Foxcatcher has moments of stasis when Du Pont delivers a boring speech. We are meant to register that boredom, which reveals the speaker’s dissociation from life. The highly physical sport of wrestling becomes a psychological obstacle course for Mark. The faded, perhaps imaginary greatness of America is a problem for everyone.

Foxcatcher
Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave
USA, rated R, 129 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 31st January, 2015.