When I was in college, I was roommates with a guy in a band. The band was good, played a lot in big local venues and won a number of competitions. My roommate remains a musician today. Once, I got to go with him to a gig; I had no official capacity but it seemed like I did. I looked on from the side of the stage while the band played and crowd cheered, and I warmed myself enough in the refracted glow to allow myself to pretend that I was somehow responsible, coolly moving along to the music like Brian Epstein and it felt great. Of course, it was a fleeting fantasy, I was accountable for nothing, and I felt silly even to indulge that for a moment but the desire to feel like a kingmaker is real and if it could be bought or attained through ill-begotten means, I can see how that would be attractive.
It certainly was attractive to John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), the center of the coldly fascinating Foxcatcher (2014), who, in the late ’80s, spent a portion of his family’s fortune and a considerable amount of his time and energy (and possibly sanity) creating a wrestling factory on his estate so he could walk imperially around practices and cross his arms stoically at matches and pretend he was the creator of the talent in the ring. His prize asset is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a gold medalist in the 1984 games who is scraping by earning $20 an engagement to speak to half-filled houses of bored middle-schoolers. His brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a gold medalist himself, has a family and a job as a coach but Mark, still in competition, has few prospects. Out of the blue comes a call from the office of Mr. du Pont and Mark is soon flown to his New England estate and offered a salary and an all-expenses-paid home on the property just to train to wrestle. “America has failed its heroes,” the hawk-nosed du Pont says in his upper-class Pennsylvania accent, which is interrupted by frequent pauses of alternating length. And he considers wrestlers our country’s great heroes. He wants to provide Mark with everything he needs to be the best in the world.
Mark briefly recruits Dave to join him but when Dave refuses to move his wife and kids, Mark is more than happy to step out from his brother’s shadow and make his own name. Under du Pont’s watchful eye, Mark brings together a staff of trainers and sparring partners and together they achieve a thrilling success—first place at the World Championships. The next stop is the 1988 Olympics. In this process, a relationship builds between Mark and du Pont, the nature of which remains shadowy. The two men are after similar things—making their own mark in the face of more accomplished relatives. Mark has Dave, a titan of contemporary wrestling, and du Pont has his family legacy of greatness, the descendent of people who built America and who created the model of the ideal businessman philanthropist. This legacy is personified by du Pont’s mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), who looks at her son grappling with teenagers in undignified shorts in horrified disapproval. This is the place where her family held stately fox hunts; now it is a place for body odor and cauliflower ear.
Du Pont, as played by a heavily prostheticized Carell, is a darkly fascinating creature. Like Grendel, he lumbers around dimly, stuck in a state of not only adolescence but devolution, looking for the things his very nature will always deny him—acceptance and esteem. To gain this esteem, he pours his energy into stunted childish pursuits: trains, bird-watching, stamp collecting, wrestling. Acceptable hobbies all, but when they form the structure of a person’s life, you are left with a person as awkward, empty and pitiful as du Pont. He enjoys showing Mark off (there are subtle and wisely undeveloped undertones of du Pont’s homosexual admiration for Mark and the other young wrestlers he collects) and has him give a speech introducing du Pont as the country’s leading “ornithologist philatelist philanthropist.” Du Pont reveals to Mark that they are now friends and are therefore released from the verbal reliance on “Mr. du Pont.” “Most of my friends called me Eagle or Golden Eagle,” he says. “Or John,” he adds. Later, the man who says most of his friends call him Eagle or Golden Eagle admits that he’s never had a friend, outside of the son of his mother’s chauffeur who was paid by Mrs. du Pont to spend time with her son. Later, du Pont sponsors an all ages wrestling tournament in which he competes and wins and is devastated when his trophy isn’t allowed in the family’s trophy case.
Du Pont is manipulating Mark into believing that he is essential to his success (and more important, that Dave is and always has been unessential), but when Mark’s training lapses from lack of leadership and discipline (for which du Pont is responsible), du Pont is happy to bring Dave in to right the ship, a move that wounds the emotionally fragile Mark. Dave’s special relationship with his brother and du Pont’s jealousy of it competes in du Pont’s psyche with his desire to be near a successful wrestling team. Without Dave, du Pont has complete control over Mark but Mark fails to be competitive. With Dave in the picture, du Pont is more obviously inconsequential but can still claim credit to Mark’s success. As this battle rages, Mark, full of self-loathing and anger when the movie opens, becomes a hollow automaton, wrestling without joy or passion. Dave recognizes this shift but can’t bring himself to leave du Pont’s money and his commitment to competitive wrestling, even at the expense of his brother’s well-being. In the end, Mark finds himself hidden under two shadows and disappears entirely.
Foxcatcher is a hard movie to warm up to, it’s about creepy obsessions and false credit, but it never fails to beguile. Complementing Bennett Miller’s professional direction are the three leads, all of whom understand their roles and bring them nicely across. A simian Tatum adds a great bit of insight to the unthinking jock, subtly suggesting demons while he is cruelly manipulated and pulled from side to side. Ruffalo is astounding in a paradoxical role that both reflects Dave’s commitment to his family, Mark included, and a shark-like competitiveness that does ultimately trump all. And if Carell seems like an odd choice to play a terrifyingly deranged emperor with no clothes, look closely at the put upon du Pont with his desperately earnest and cloying need for love thwarted by his undying delusions of his own greatness and his simple inability to connect with other people, and tell me if you don’t see quite a bit of Michael Scott.