Like his two other narrative features — Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011) — Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a distanced, uninviting work. It’s a well-crafted prestige picture that oozes with “importance” from the first frame. (Hey, here’s a movie that brings in a great actress, Vanessa Redgrave, for what amounts to a glorified cameo.) However, this chilly film almost justifies its obvious sense of self-worth. It may be a case of director and material being perfectly matched. Miller’s often ponderous detachment gives the film the kind of gravitas — real or illusory — that keeps it from seeming to be the kind of tabloid trash its story basically is. I mean, at bottom, this is a true crime story about a filthy rich man preying on the relatively innocent while becoming progressively detached from any kind of reality until an inevitable tragedy occurs. It’s “ripped from the headlines” stuff — except the headlines are from 1996, and it’s handled by Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman as a kind of gothic American tragedy with an eye on class structure.
There’s a trade-off in all this. Sure, it’s not trashy, but in tamping down that element, the film just isn’t very exciting. However, it is strangely fascinating. It took a story in which I admit I had little interest and held my attention for over two hours. That’s something of an accomplishment right there. It may have helped that I only knew the basics of the story — so basic, in fact, that I didn’t know who was going to be murdered. This — along with having first seen the film in a theater — probably contributed to its one shock effect being as startling and effective as something out of a horror movie.
The story concerns John du Pont (Steve Carell all but unrecognizable in a heavy, unattractive and slightly distracting makeup), heir to the du Pont chemical fortune becoming fixated on creating a “Team Foxcatcher” (Foxcatcher being the name of his estate) Olympic wrestling team. To this end, he recruits former Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to help him. Mark is an easy target. He’s down on his luck — accepting a $20 speaking gig (that was actually meant for his brother) at an elementary school and barely making ends meet. Moreover, he has no real personality, social skills or charm and lives in the shadow of his charismatic — also gold medalist — brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). The offer to come to Foxcatcher is irresistible.
Mark is like some kind of weird variation on the poor heroine of a gothic novel — brought into a creepy, but seductive world of untold privilege and the blandishments of his wealthy host. It seems — though the idea is left dangling — that du Pont is just as fixated on Mark as he is on Team Foxcatcher. He fills the younger man’s head with both flattery and a lot of empty patriotic posturing. Though wary of du Pont, Mark is also star-struck — or maybe money-struck. But things don’t play out the way he and du Pont expect, and soon the millionaire has also recruited Dave, changing the dynamic and sending things into a spiral that mirrors du Pont’s descent into madness. The film barely stops short of labeling du Pont’s insanity an outgrowth of affluenza, but questions of class privilege pervade the film to such an extent that it’s inescapable.
The film takes some liberties to make its points. Foxcatcher Farms was only renamed that by du Pont following his mother’s death, but that doesn’t prevent the film from making it Foxcatcher as early as the faux-home movie footage of a foxhunt at the beginning of the film. That’s not just keeping things simple, it’s also to make the point that the brothers are nothing more to du Pont than the fox in the hunt. That’s not an unreasonable embellishment in the context of the movie, which more or less sticks to the essence of the case. The overall results — while never quite becoming the significant film Foxcatcher wants to be — are compelling enough to make for a movie well worth your while. Rated R for some drug use and a scene of violence.