Foxcatcher is a movie about America, but what makes it so compelling is that you don't realize it at first. Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), the film is too subtle—and, frankly, too strange—to explicitly make some simple, overarching, grandiose statement. And yet, when you replay it in your head later, that's the only conclusion you can draw: that it gets at the complicated, unresolved nature of American life almost subliminally. It tells you something that you understand deep in your bones, except it's never been articulated in quite this way.
Based on actual events, the movie stars Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, a gold medalist in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics. But that glory doesn't translate into lucrative endorsement deals and untold celebrity, and so we first meet Mark living in a crappy apartment, preparing for the '88 Games. The obscurity might bother him less if he wasn't constantly overshadowed by his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), a fellow gold-medal winner who's more charming and likable than the sullen Mark. Married with a steady job, David is still focused on wrestling, but he at least has a life outside of the sport; his monosyllabic brother has nothing else.
It's then that John du Pont comes into Mark's life. A scion of the wealthy du Pont family, he has one of his minions summon the wrestler to his impressive country estate. Mark agrees—what else does he have going on?—and meets this pale man with a hook nose and slow speaking style. Played by Steve Carell buried under makeup, du Pont informs Mark that he wants to start up a wrestling team that will win gold in '88. For once, David isn't the favored brother: This rich, well-connected man believes Mark is the man who can lead America to victory.
Du Pont's motives are patriotic—he'll tell anyone who'll listen that the U.S. must continue to be the greatest, most powerful country in the world—but also less selfless than they first appear. Although Mark and John wouldn't seem to have anything in common, they share a need for approval, for being seen—and neither man is having that need met. For du Pont, that desire stems from an uneasy relationship with his family's legacy, personified by a blue-blood mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who can't fathom her son's interest in a lowly sport like wrestling. Richer than God, du Pont can't seem to buy his mother's recognition, but he hopes that sponsoring a victorious squad at the Seoul Olympics might do the trick.
It's this craving, echoed in other ways throughout the movie, that makes Foxcatcher so distinctly American. The film's three main characters are all consumed by a lingering dissatisfaction: Du Pont wants the prestige and respect his wealthy family's status should afford him, David wants to make enough money to support his family during hard economic times, and Mark wants to be a champion—to be seen as great on his own terms, not in relation to his brother. Nobody in this film's universe ever has enough: Even the richest character feels like he's lacking something fundamental. Eventually, David will also become involved in du Pont's wrestling team, dubbed Foxcatcher, but the three men's pursuit of sports excellence merely distracts us from a deeper, more intangible desire that may never be squelched.
All of this only occurs to you later, though: Moment to moment, Foxcatcher is too consumed with its characters and their unusual relationships with one another to announce such weighty themes. The movie mostly focuses on the odd friendship between John and Mark, who becomes something of a kept man, living at du Pont's estate and regarding him as a sort of mentor. Given the presence of something intimate and almost unspoken there, some may deduce that they were lovers, but the film suggests that their relationship wasn't sexual: Instead, it was based on their shared pain as familial outsiders. But where Mark has an unassuming simplicity to him—he's not dumb, but he's not particularly bright, either—John is portrayed as a master manipulator, able to tap into Mark's insecurities to bring out his personal best while also opening other doors in the wrestling community.
Because this is such a change-of-pace role for Carell, the comic actor risks being praised merely for his "bravery." True, both his voice and his face are dramatically different here, but what's especially great about his portrayal is how complete it is. He never really "vanishes" into the role, but that's part of what makes it work: Du Pont is such a singularly odd duck that he's never comfortable in any situation, and although others get used to his ineffectual demeanor, there's a lingering unease in every scene he's in. A figure of great sadness and strangeness, he's a milquetoast variation on great cinematic strivers like There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview or Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane. Born with a chip on his shoulder and struggling to reshape the world into a place where he's universally admired, du Pont is endlessly tragic, and Carell lets that tension simmer on the surface, never playing it for laughs.
He doesn't dominate the movie, though. As with his previous films, Miller is mostly curious about how weird little communities operate, whether it's a pro baseball team or the inhabitants drawn to a small-town murder—here again, he resists judging Foxcatcher's world, too legitimately curious to draw any conclusions, honoring its mysteries rather than trying to unravel them. If you explained the film's plot to someone who didn't know the real-life story—which, it should be said, has been rearranged a bit—it wouldn't make much sense. This is a film about a rich weirdo who coaxes two reasonable brothers into his lair of distorted reality. But what makes the result so spellbinding is that we come to understand why these characters all needed each other, even if it evades simple logic.
If you're familiar at all with the events that inspired Foxcatcher, it won't surprise you that the film ends in tragedy; I knew that going in, but it's a testament to the film that I wound up surprised anyway. In a way, the whole movie is a tragedy, detailing the ways in which we keep chasing things only because we mistakenly think we deserve them, or need them. Nobody is happy in this universe, because happiness is something that's unobtainable in America. In fact, the movie argues, that's one of America's most basic tenets.
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