“Fame makes a man take things over.”
There couldn’t be a much more obvious needle drop for a scene of newly minted champions celebrating over champagne in a well-adorned trophy room, but more than one line from David Bowie’s “Fame” suits the grander themes of the terrific sports drama, Foxcatcher. Landing at the logical crossroads between Moneyball’s quest for sports-minded superiority and Capote’s chilly portrait of the criminal mind, director Bennett Miller’s third narrative feature revisits the eventually tragic real-life involvement of Olympic wrestling champs Mark and Dave Schultz with eccentric millionaire John du Pont.
By 1987, 27-year-old Mark (Channing Tatum) had already earned an Olympic gold medal, but as he lectures bored students for a pittance and commits to his umpteenth meal of instant ramen while older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) raises a proper family, it’s clear that the glory has faded. Out of the blue comes a call on behalf of Mr. du Pont (Steve Carell), a wealthy ornithologist, philatelist and philosopher eager to sponsor the Schultz brothers if it means bringing the gold home to America once again.
Dave doesn’t bite at the offer, not at first, but for Mark, the move to Foxcatcher Farm is more than a much-needed windfall; it’s a chance to step out from his brother’s shadow and, as a child of divorce, the opportunity to prove his worth to a father figure. In turn, John hopes to convince his horse-loving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) that he might yet make her proud, even if just by costly association to what she calls a “low” sport.
Anyone familiar with the facts behind the film already knows how steep a toll this arrangement would take, but writers Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye convincingly establish the institutional and interpersonal pressures to succeed that would drive each of these men to their fate. When first shown, Mark is grappling with a faceless figure in an empty gym, a canny alignment of the equally physical and psychological burdens to come. (Ever an expert employer of silence, Miller often allows the sounds of the gym to speak louder than words or score: the scuffle of the shoes, the thuds on the mat, the primal grunts of the warriors.)
Although the surrogate family relationships are pressed upon a little too insistently, Miller devotes equal attention to both Mark’s cult-like obedience to his new coach and John’s proud sense of American pride. The du Pont estate’s proximity to the site of Valley Forge is no accident — what is patriotism, after all, but another form of vicarious victory achieved by the men actually throwing themselves into battle after battle? To root for our young hopeful is to root for Team Foxcatcher, which is to root for nothing less than the United States entire.
A star of increasingly remarkable talents, Tatum’s physicality is put to canny use (not wholly unlike Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler), though the majority of his performance is defined by a quiet vulnerability as we see Mark’s athletic endurance tested and warped by time and wealth.
Ruffalo provides solid support as a brother and coach who cannot always separate one role from the other, as well as an outsider more wary of John’s grandstanding personality than most. As for Carell, his prosthetic nose never quite blends in, a beak worthy of the man who insists on being called “Eagle,” but as a means of disrupting his widely accepted image as a comedian, it allows for an impressive turn filled with understated desperation and domination.
Even if you know how the story ends, Foxcatcher skillfully thrives on that tension of the calm before the storm, the sadness of the void which lies between the cheering crowds, and the gulf between having everything and needing something that money can never buy.
The Upside: Deftly realized performances; a masterfully maintained sense of melancholy and menace.
The Downside: A few of the script’s themes grow somewhat overstated over the course of 134 minutes.
On the Side: Anthony Michael Hall and Sienna Miller have small supporting roles as John’s head of security and Dave’s wife, respectively.