(SPOILERS) I really liked Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, a hard sell of a baseball tale (not a sport I have any interest in; I prefer rounders) dramatising a controversial system for assembling winning teams rather than taking the usual tack of following the glories of the players themselves. Foxcatcher, another true-life sports tale, is much less successful. On paper it sounds like a no-brainer; Olympic athletes, rich dynasties and murder. But somehow Miller’s film wears its fascinating subject matter down, becoming an inscrutable and distancing piece that resists its compelling potential.
1984 Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, all protruding Neanderthal jaw), not-so-little and not-so-bright brother of also Olympic wrestling champion, coach and family man Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo, exploring a really bad hair day for his art), lives in his older sibling’s shadow, so jumps at the offer by John E du Pont (Steve Carell, a walking nose prosthesis, not that he needed one in the first place), heir to the du Pont family fortune and unparalleled wrestling fan, to come and join his Team Foxcatcher where he will be paid handsomely as he trains for the World Championship. It sounds like a great deal, but that’s not factoring in what a complete weirdo John du Pont is.
Dave initially refuses to join his brother, and du Pont, still attached to the apron strings of his frail mother (memorably played by Vanessa Redgrave), embarks on a peculiar friendship with Mark, one where he wakes him in the middle of the night for intimate wrestling bouts and seeks validation for his own pitiful attempts at wrestling and leadership. He also asks to be called Eagle, or Golden Eagle, or John, or Coach; Mark continues calling him sir. After a sniff of proffered coke, Mark’s own training regimen comes unstuck, his hair gets highlights and he starts pigging out. Then his enchantment with his generous benefactor is fatally broken after du Pont strikes him one day (hanging out with the rest of the team at the chalet where he stays, presumably seen as snub by du Pont). Soon after this, Dave arrives, and Mark’s departure is set in stone.
What precisely leads du Pont to shoot Dave repeatedly one wintery morning isn’t clear from the film (“Do you have a problem with me?” he asks before firing), probably because it isn’t clear to the makers just what made du Pont tick. It may be a combination of Dave’s respectful indifference to the lauded and yes-sir status du Pont is used to, or it maybe that he has lost Mark; Miller establishes homoerotic undertones (denied by the real Mark) to the relationship, while du Pont has Mark call him the father he always wish he had in a big speech.
Even with events compressed and altered as they are (in reality, Dave was shot eight years after Mark left Foxcatcher), Bennett and writers E Max Frye and Dan Futterman seem content not to attempt to illuminate. Indeed, they remain remote to the story and aloof from the characters. Sometimes such an approach can serve a narrative, but here, where the central duo is so unrelatable (Dave is only ever peripheral to the main plot, even when he moves to Foxcatcher), there needs to be something more.
Both Tatum and (particularly) Ruffalo are very good, but Dave’s dim watt passive aggression makes for a difficult protagonist (again, this is seems to be a choice made by Miller, as the loner of the movie was really a party guy). Ruffalo brings his ever-present empathy to bear in spades. Carrell’s a different story. It’s difficult to tell if he’s essaying an unknowable man, or just hiding behind prostheses and an impenetrable demeanour. Either way, du Pont is never other than a caricature. At times this even passes into familiar Carrell territory, an excruciating comedy without the laughs (most notably trying to impress his mother by ordering the team).
The picture plods along unhurriedly and there are no heated exchanges, confrontations or dramatics that might inform du Pont’s murderous act (he eventually died in prison). Again, sometimes this sort of slow burn can be hypnotic, but here it’s tiresome. It doesn’t help that, with its unapologetic ‘80s milieu, Foxcatcher is an aesthetically unwelcoming picture. One comes away agreeing with the snobby du Pont matriarch that “It’s a low sport” (not that fox hunting’s anything to be proud of), even as a backdrop to the events depicted here. More than that, even a cursory glance at the real story suggests the tack taken by Miller (who spent a year editing the picture, so presumably encountered hiccups along the way) might not have best suited the material.