In the closing moments of Bennett Miller’s 2005 film Capote, director Bennett Miller tells us that “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Foxcatcher tells a similar tale. It is cold in the same way that Miller’s Capote is cold, a pensive progression of events that will soon go awry in the pursuit of answering prayers. Miller abstains from the temptation of indulging in pity or judgement, but instead opts for a detached examination of the eddies created by circumstances of misfortune.
Based on the lives of Olympic wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), Foxcatcher relates the story behind the relationship between the Schultz brothers and eccentric multimillionaire John E. DuPont (Steve Carell). Set in the late 1980’s, our story begins as DuPont invites Mark to train under his supervision at his Foxcatcher Farms estate in rural Pennsylvania. He offers to sponsor Mark as an athlete, providing lodging, training time, and food with no strings attached. He even encourages him choose other worthy wrestlers to become part of “Team Foxcatcher” in a bid for glory at the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul. DuPont laments the modern state of affairs and the social tragedy of failing to support committed athletes. As a self-proclaimed patriot, he declares it his duty to do all that he can for Mark. Mark accepts DuPont’s offer with trusting innocence but his brother Dave shrewdly asks what DuPont stands to gain from the arrangement.
The agreement that at first seems too good to be true eventually reveals itself to be just that, and does so with a placidly smooth transition from good to bad. We observe how the relationship between Mark and his mentor DuPont not only sours, but ferments into poison. We see the air seep from these inflated Olympic dreams, deflating into uncomfortable realities of ambition and folly. Miller wisely avoids the familiar cliches that mar other stories of this type, a familiar tale that begins in ambition and ends in heartbreak, but instead he presents a gradual descent into chaos and tragedy that numbs like ice.
Steve Carell’s performance captivates as a mentally deranged John DuPont who ruminates in awkward silences much to the discomfort of anyone around him, including us. Carell departs from his typical comedic role but doesn’t stray too far, finding like chinks in armor tiny ways to employ a soft humor that brings a personable quality to DuPont, enough to almost make us want to like him.
Likewise, Channing Tatum’s brooding and troubled Mark Schultz channels the essence of a man torn between an unquenchable drive to succeed and an unshakeable fear of failure. We glimpse moments of genuine connection between the two men, where Mark is able to see in DuPont the elusive father he never had, and DuPont finds the filial companionship of a son in Mark.
At 134 minutes, the film is a slow moving beast, supplemented by heavy lingering pauses in which characters speak to each other in drawling, uncertain voices and stare off in pensive, muted silences. In a lesser film this would appear pretentious and gimmicky, but Miller knows how to pace, filling these pregnant pauses with deeper questions that go unspoken but linger and go dormant, then, hauntingly, explode.
This sparseness of tone carries over into all elements of the film’s design. The soundtrack is an ascetic sprinkling of light piano, savoring a few sparse notes during deep moments. The images are largely wide and static, favoring heft over motion as this familiar story sprawls further and further beyond what the eye can see.
Bennett Miller is masterful at laying the framework of a world upheld at the seams by violence and domination. The legacy of Foxcatcher is one born in blood, a family fortune built from violence and bloodshed through weapons manufacturing, and an estate named after an aristocratic hobby making sport of death and killing.
Despite this, DuPont assures us in the beginning that there is a genuine patriotism to his endeavor, trimmed with all the Cold War dressings of a nation desperate not to lose its place in the world, and to remain relevant. Perhaps DuPont’s scheme is similar in scope, the attempt of a lonely man accustomed to buying companionship to find a way to earn it authentically. And the film leaves this question of the depth of Mark’s and DuPont’s relationship open-ended. There are indeed moments when each appears to value the company of the other. And yet, there are also moments where sharp feelings of disdain poke through the fragile surface of the relationship, but this is also not unlike true friendship. Foxcatcher is as much a film about friendship as it is about wrestling, and the strange, explosive, tense, and oddly violent intimacy that can consume them both.