Warning: This review spoils the real-life events depicted in the movie.
The crime at the heart of Foxcatcher is not a mystery. The murderer did what he did on his own property, in the plain light of day and in front of at least two eye-witnesses. The fact that ornithologist, philatelist, and philanthropist John du Pont (Steve Carell) shot and killed Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is not up for debate. The why of it all, of course, is. Why would a billionaire with an inherited fortune built on munitions and chemicals build an elite training facility on his Valley Forge-adjacent compound (known as Foxcatcher Farm) for the purposes of training and closely supervising wrestlers to become Olympic hopefuls? And why then, after all that time and effort, would he kill a man who was the centerpiece of this bizarre venture?
These questions are impossible to answer with any degree of certainty, but that’s what makes at least the first hour of Foxcatcher one of the most fascinating films of the year. In keeping with the unknowable nature of the story, Bennett Miller keeps the dialogue sparse and allows the physicality of his actors to guide his story. It’s something that runs throughout the film, lending a low electric current to scenes that would normally have none. That intensity comes in waves, like in an early scene where Mark (Channing Tatum)—also a gold medal-winning Olympian—and his brother Dave spar, going through a series of holds that first resemble affection, then physical therapy and finally something more vicious. It’s the first of many moments that Ruffalo completely owns. There are other, showier performances that are bound to get more attention, but Ruffalo is unquestionably the best individual element here. Dave moves and acts like the leader of a pack of Gorillas, hugging his brother by bringing Mark’s head in against his chest and cradling him. The deadly center of gravity that made Dave a world-class wrestler is in every move and gesture Ruffalo makes. His arms and spine seem permanently curled, yet he’s undeniably fast and limber. His athleticism isn’t a gear he shifts into. Ruffalo’s commitment makes that totally clear and tells us almost everything we need to know about the power dynamic between these two brothers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mark. Whereas Dave radiates a fatherly warmth that extends to everyone he meets (or turns against them, as needed), Mark is a child looking for someone for whom he can be a good boy. It’s that eagerness to please that allows him to wander into John du Pont’s world as willingly as he does. The financial aspect is one thing, but Mark seems more interested in the man who believes in him. It’s that same eagerness that makes for one of the most cringe-inducing scenes of the year, when Mark shows up to Foxcatcher Farm, ready to move in, unaware that du Pont’s open invitation was non-specific about the start date. There’s a strong Jane Eyre-vibe to these scenes (and the film as a whole). Both stories have a staggering imbalance in the power structure of a new relationship and here John has the ability to suddenly (and randomly) withhold a seemingly sincere friendship that he was extending only moments ago. John shows up to Mark’s guest house in the middle of the night to give him random pep talks and just as suddenly, he disappears. He gets to do that because he’s paying for everything. Mark, on the other hand, knows that his place is in the guest house and even there he doesn’t do much to make that space his own, even after months of living there.
You can’t talk about Carell’s performance without talking about his make-up. It’s extreme and borderline cartoonish, which is a shame, because the performance is actually pretty great. His cadence comes across as though du Pont had a permanent nasal infection that made it difficult for him to breath deeply enough to speak in anything more than short bursts. It’s totally unique, but admittedly really showy. If you can reconcile that, you’re going to be fine here. Du Pont, like the rest of the characters, has different modes when speaking with family members and there’s another side of him that comes out in a scene with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). She’s the only person in his life with more power than him and he’s both his truest self and his most outwardly horrible when they’re having a one-on-one conversation about how his infatuation with wrestling makes him “low.” So much of this story is about the effect that people have on one another and the shifting nature of personality when someone who would normally keep you in check leaves. In another great scene, Redgrave shows up unannounced to one of John’s practices and as he attempts to lead the instruction, he quickly exposes himself as a frail, old man with little-to-no skill in the ring. He’s been lying to her (and himself) about his role as the financier of this venture, telling her it’s not what she thinks. Well, it pretty much is. It’s excruciating to watch and really well played, but it gets us to a point in the film where the psychological motivations for du Pont veer into cliche. Mommy issues exist as a trope for a reason and though the film is still really great at visually-verbalizing these ideas, the themes start pounding at you like a Philip Glass score. The atmosphere is still masterful, but it’s in the service of something that doesn’t feel quite as worthy.
There’s no question that this is a well made film. Bennett Miller seems to have taken a quantum leap forward as a visual story-teller in the time between this film and Moneyball. But by the time Mark dyes his hair and John wakes him up in the middle of the night for late night “practices,” the story feels run into the ground. The mystery of John du Pont and what happened at Foxcatcher doesn’t need these lurid turns, even if they happen to be true. Miller’s techniques may be approaching next-level, but his common sense fails him at times and things that should have been cut from the screenplay make it in. Still, there’s a lot to admire here and not just on academic storytelling terms. This is essentially a sad story about people who don’t know how to care for each other in anything approaching a healthy manner. Miller gets that almost entirely right and it’s worth visiting this world at least once, even if the mystery of the thing is better viewed at a distance.