Bennett Miller’s ‘Foxcatcher’

Crooked silence

For a story based around wrestling — a sweaty, muscular, and balletic sport — Foxcatcher is a movie whose strength and power often lies in crooked silence and stillness.

The brotherly bond: Tatum and Ruffalo. (Photo by Scott Garfield - © Fair Hill, LLC.)

The story, about the Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and their involvement with John du Pont (Steve Carell), pointedly contrasts the active physical world of the two wrestlers and du Pont’s privileged world of inaction.

A supremely deluded and mentally troubled man who believes that money is the only thing between him and his slightest desire, Carell stares down his nose — literally — at the rest of humanity, spouting jingoistic phrases about patriotism and American values while engaging in his own fantastical dream of coaching Olympic gold-medalist Mark Schultz to a repeat of Olympic greatness. To that end he builds a gym at Foxcatcher Farms, luring Mark — and eventually his brother — to train there.

The relationship between the brothers is as intense as any seen on film. Their wrestling early in the movie is a fierce, wordless depiction of sibling rivalry and harmonic grace. It’s a grace that du Pont — despite his money — lacks and sorely wants. And if he can’t have it, he can figure out ways to destroy it.

Stealthy stillness

But as Mark lumbers across the screen, his gait hampered by bulging muscles and brawn, his brow concealing his hooded troubled eyes, it is du Pont’s stillness that seems to suck the energy from him and everyone else in the room. As he spouts his empty platitudes, introduces Mark to his coke habit, and even urges him on in the wrestling ring, Carell stealthily infuses Schultz with his own inability to move forward, his own failures, eventually draining Mark of his power.

The camera holds the viewer in place on the battlegrounds of Valley Forge, the prolonged self-mutilation of an angry and self-destructive Mark, the empty pronouncements of a narcissistic and profoundly damaged multimillionaire. These moments build to an eerie tension that doesn’t break until the final minutes of the film.

In a wrestling world built on reading an opponent’s every physical gesture, du Pont, dorky and without grace, proves an impossible read for Mark. The few times that du Pont springs into action — unexpectedly slapping Mark across the face or grabbing a wrestler’s leg in a clumsy gesture of celebration — it’s almost grotesque.

Leaving the good life

The other central character is Dave Schultz, Mark’s older brother. Unlike Mark, who prior to his involvement with du Pont lived in hand-to-mouth poverty and solitude, Dave has a steady job coaching wrestling and a family: a wife and two children. From the first time he meets du Pont, Dave seems onto him, but not enough to refuse his financial support. As he moves through his time at Foxcatcher, he concentrates on his brother, but the damage inflicted by du Pont has been done.

Aside from being a piece about the sheer intensity of wrestling and brotherly bonding, the movie is also a parable about how we live now, the haves and have-nots. The grinding poverty of Mark Schultz, by rights an American hero, contrasts mightily with the inherited wealth of the du Ponts, who get to indulge their slightest whims.

This is a movie where even the final act is accomplished without melodrama, in stillness and without visible emotion. It is a tale of noblesse oblige gone horribly wrong, tapping a deep well of jealousy and a longing for connection and glory that money can’t buy. The tone is somber, dark, and terrifically real.

 

To read another comment about Foxcatcher by Judy Weightman, click here.

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