Arrogance: the essential toxin that drives the wealthy. For John du Pont, heir to his fabled family's chemical fortune, it was a healthy dose of that poison chased with wild delusions that led him to murder Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996. Actually, he was way more bonkers than that, but Bennett Miller's new film, Foxcatcher, avoids exploiting the tabloid sexiness of du Pont's story in favor of a more subtle type of crazy – the ominous type that stays under your skin long after the theater lights go up.
Relentlessly bleak in tone, Foxcatcher is an account of the events leading up to the murder, which in hindsight is all the more appalling. It's a true crime drama drained of all elements that commonly make the genre entertaining (namely, the ol' sex and violence). Is Foxcatcher entertaining? Not at all. But it is a powerfully gripping layer cake that explores the victims left to wither and die under the malignant, patriotic super-rich.
Mixing sports drama and true crime, Foxcatcher takes us into the turbulent world of wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). Both brothers are already Olympic gold medal winners, but only Dave has had a successful post-medal career as a coach and family man, while Mark lives a lonely existence, eating ramen in his small apartment with only his collection of trophies to keep him company. Opportunity knocks one night when he gets a call from billionaire wrestling-coach-wannabe John du Pont (Steve Carell, cast way against type). He invites Mark to train at his sprawling estate (dubbed Foxcatcher) for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont also wants Dave to come on as coach, but the prodigal brother refuses to uproot his family (including his wife, played by Sienna Miller). "He doesn't care about the money," Mark tells du Pont, a concept the old man can't wrap his liver-spotted head around.
Mark soon finds himself movin' on up from his rinky-dink apartment to a private chalet at Foxcatcher, nestled in the foggy hillsides near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (the constant fog creates a perfect blanket of gloom for the sordid tale). While once Mark lived in the shadow of his brother, he now finds himself in a fantasy world of limitless luxury with one of America's wealthiest old-timers as his benefactor. The dream soon begins to crack as du Pont's fractured psyche surfaces. He pushes Mark to the brink, slapping his simian jaw and calling him an "ungrateful ape." Eventually, Dave agrees to join Team Foxcatcher (more out of worry for his brother than being an Olympic hopeful) and disaster ensues.
What unfolds is an emotional triangle, with du Pont and Dave pulling the already fragile Mark in two different directions. The brute does not handle it well. Much like he did with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Miller draws sharply idiosyncratic turns from his actors. It's easily the most nuanced and layered role Tatum has ever taken on, and he does an incredible job embodying Mark's silent rage (think Matthias Schoenaerts' role in Bullhead). On the mat he's a titan, off he's almost like a lost caveman. Ruffalo delivers the most sympathetic performance, which is no great stretch. He's the consummate middle class family man and caring brother, trying desperately to repair the potholes du Pont leaves on Mark's psyche.
The most shocking turn comes from Carell, who's damn near unrecognizable as du Pont. Every moment he's on screen, every untoward pause he makes in his speech, raises the overall sense of dread. Carell is masterful in this role. He never resorts to strident insanity. His brand is way more subtle and sly, with only suggestions that this old coot is more fucked up than he seems.
He's almost like a horror movie villain - the stately vampire holed up in his castle, manipulating the weak-minded. An ornithologist and philatelist, du Pont fancied himself a wrestling coach, though his family never allowed him to hit the mat (a "sport for ruffians," they called it). Speaking of ornithology, Carell's prosthetic nose juts out like a beak, giving him the cold visage of a bird of prey. Tatum deserves a purple heart for having to stare at that schnoz all day.
In reality, du Pont was far crazier than he's depicted in the film. He lived on his family estate his entire life. In his 50s, he grew increasingly more delusional. According to a 2010 Washington Post article, du Pont referred to himself as the "American Dalai Lama" and wouldn't respond unless called so. He had all African Americans removed from his estate (mostly Team Foxcatcher wrestlers) because he thought being around "anything black" would make him sick. He drove around his estate in a tank (this bit is shown in the film). He blew up a nest of infant foxes. When he pulled the trigger on Dave in 1996, he was completely out of his mind.
Miller leaves many of these details out. Rather than infuse Foxcatcher with tabloid overtones, the director maintains a dreadful uneasiness throughout. You never know when du Pont is going to snap or what's going to set him off. Miller shows remarkable control over the material as well. There's an ominous spell cast from the first frame to the last, with Miller's exquisite sense of restraint anchoring it all.
Like I mentioned earlier, there's nothing entertaining about Foxcatcher. It's bleak to a suffocating degree, which is sexy in an aesthetic way. That's not meant to be a slam. It's simply the truth. If you can stomach two and a half hours of grim and forlorn stew, then do not miss this mean motha. Let yourself be carried in the palms of a master craftsman while a war between three commanding actors rages quietly on screen (then go look up articles about the true story because it's way crazier and Miller changed a major element of du Pont's apprehension).