Foxcatcher tells the unbelievably true story of the greatest Olympic wrestling champions, the Shultz brothers.
We first meet Mark (Channing Tatum) and David (Mark Ruffalo) as they are training together for the 1988 games in Seoul. They behave in an instinctive way; embracing, yet fighting, violent, yet loving , each man trying to get the measure of the other. Although in direct competition they are also simultaneously supportive of the other.
Both brothers struck gold for wrestling at the 1984 Olympics. Whilst David has his wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) and two children to care for, Mark is the more reclusive brother, preferring to spend his time watching tapes of his competitors in action rather than socialising.
When a multimillionaire sponsor John du Pont (Steve Carell) takes an interest in Mark and then David it becomes clear that they brother won’t be returning to their dilapidated downtown gym any time soon.
The real story begins when du Pont welcomes Mark to his privately funded ‘Team Foxcatcher’ wrestling facility. What follows is a matter of public record and isn’t a story you would want to recall.
Director Bennett Miller creates moments that are severely unpleasant, they lack emotion or timing and you find yourself yearning for the early scenes of brotherly love.
We are shown two different sides of du Pont, the first being the affectionate all-American that only has good words to say about Mark. The second is almost reptilian in his nature. He shows no emotion. In fact his actions are disturbingly calculated. For him negativity, never mind failure, is not an option.
The tycoon’s proposal doesn’t make much sense and Mark, David and even the audience are left scratching their heads trying to figure it out. He doesn’t seem to have the essential wrestling coach credentials. It’s clear for all to see that he lacks any kind of people skills. Thanks to his privileged upbringing there has always been someone there to do the dirty work for him. In one scene he recalls to Mark how his mother ‘bought’ him his first friend.
“What does he get out of all of this?” Dave asks his brother. It’s a question that the movie struggles to answer. However Mark mistakes his own confusion for amazement, and instantly signs up to be part of Team Foxcatcher.
Mark moves to Foxcatcher Farm, du Pont’s Pennsylvania estate, where he’s given the chance to train at a privately funded, state-of-the-art facility in preparation for the forthcoming Olympic Games in Seoul. But he lives an isolated life, at du Pont’s request.
Over time the stocky, stern young athlete is transformed into du Pont’s plaything: the pair snort cocaine together, attend society dinners where Mark recalls his master’s brilliance from prepared scripts, and wrestle in the library after dark, in an eerie and torturous way.
The canine imagery returns with a stomach-lurching scene: out on the Foxcatcher terrace, we see Mark kneeling at du Pont’s feet like a faithful hound, his hindquarters clenched, his hair fluffed and bleached. du Pont’s sexual attraction to the wrestlers is apparent – although the real Mark Schultz has complained that the movie misrepresents his relationship with the tycoon.
Next du Pont decides that he wants Dave on board too. But the elder brother isn’t willing to uproot his family. “How much does he want?” asks du Pont. “You can’t buy Dave,” replies Mark. There’s a long pause, as du Pont unsuccessfully attempts to process this. In the billionaire’s world bloodlines, history and legacy (and, by extension, his distant mother’s) count for everything. He doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually wins Dave over.
The movie’s conclusion comes as a sickening shock, but in retrospect, it seems coldly inevitable, and Miller milks its symbolic significance for all it’s worth. Until that moment the movie is so frustratingly slow that it’s hard to bear at times.
Miller’s style is deliberately downbeat. Colours are desaturated. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and he creates an ominous and unwavering tension that refuses to dissipate.
The movie attempts to show Tatum and Carell is a new light, but fails miserably. Instead Tatum as the tongue-tied, slightly dim-witted wrestler isn’t so far removed from the undercover cop he played played in 21 and 22 Jump Street.
Carell gives an unnerving performance, but sadly the movie is hollow at the core. The comic actor plays completely against type, giving a performance that’s like stepping on a slug – days later, you’re still shivering at the thought of it. His prosthetic nose is laughable and so he has to look deep within for the real transformation.
Ruffalo bulked up to play Schultz and is barely recognisable beneath his beard. He tries his hardest to bring a sense of order to the proceedings, but again the movie fails. Sienna Miller is barely worth the mention, she merely blends into the background.
Foxcatcher is a story of old money, corruption and violence with a distorted sense of patriotism. But unlike Hitchcock’s Norman Bates this poor little rich boy with mommy issues isn’t that complex, or interesting for that matter.
Whilst Foxcatcher is an unforgettably dark psychological thriller, it’s memorable for all the wrong reasons.
By Ruth Walker