After billionaire wrestling benefactor John du Pont was arrested in 1989 for murdering coach and former Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz, the police announced that du Pont would be given a mental evaluation. In his Tonight Show monologue, Jay Leno cracked, “Isn’t that like peeling a brown banana? Don’t you already know what you’re gonna get?” Foxcatcher, a movie about the bizarre crime and the events leading up to it, dares to peel the banana and comes up with a story of some power, even if it’s not exactly what happened.
The story picks up in 1987 when Dave’s brother and fellow Olympic champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is training for upcoming tournaments. Despite his accomplishments, he’s scrounging for enough money to buy a fast-food burger. No wonder he’s always scowling, and no wonder he jumps when John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell) calls him up out of the blue, flies him to his Pennsylvania estate overlooking Valley Forge, shows him the shiny, fully equipped gym on the grounds, and offers Mark a chance to head up a hand-picked team of elite wrestlers to live and train there. John dubs them Team Foxcatcher, a dig at his mean old mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who cares more about breeding thoroughbred horses than her son’s well-being. Meanwhile, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) worries about John’s increasingly erratic and possessive behavior, which includes taking part in practices, snorting cocaine, firing off handguns in the gym, and trying to drive a wedge between the Schultzes.
This is another chance for director Bennett Miller to explore his pet theme — male inarticulateness. Capote is about a writer who can’t admit that he’s using his human subjects to further his career, while Moneyball is about a baseball executive who can’t give voice to the insecurities eating away at him. Foxcatcher is about a rich guy who can’t explain his deep-seated need to spend hours each day with his arms around young, muscular men wearing singlets. In real life, du Pont had a wife (who is completely left out of this movie), and his problems likely stemmed from paranoid schizophrenia rather than latent homosexuality. Still, the dance between John and Mark, who comes to dimly perceive how he’s being used but can’t say it out loud, is the dynamic that spins this movie.
Helping spin it are its lead actors, who you’d think would have teamed up for a bright, friendly comedy instead of this somber drama. His hair grayed up and his teeth horribly discolored, a startlingly transformed Carell delivers his lines in an oily, refined stream and habitually points his chin at the person he’s addressing so he can look down his prosthetic beaked nose at them. A few of his line readings do remind you that this is the same actor who played Michael Scott, but Carell resists going for the laughs, even during a scene when John tells Mark how to address him: “My friends call me ‘Eagle’ or ‘Golden Eagle.’ ” Carell’s face contorts into a wicked mask of madness after the murder, and he’s perhaps even more frightening in a scene before that, when John, in the wake of his mother’s death, turns her prized horses loose in a display of uncontrolled emotion. He’s well complemented by Tatum, tamping down his ebullience to locate Mark’s smoldering desire to win that edges over into darkness, resulting in Mark punching himself in the face and head-butting a mirror after losing an Olympic qualifying match.
That’s all part of Foxcatcher’s starchy critique of American masculinity. From the comfort of his mansion during an economic boom, John announces that America is decaying and needs to be rescued by strong men committed to excellence — like himself. “I am giving America hope,” he tells his mother without a trace of irony. People in many countries fetishize physical strength, work ethic, and material success. However, the poisonous brew that results when patriotism and a love of spectacle are added to the mix feels uniquely American. This movie succeeds in many of the places where Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain failed, though it’s not as pointed or as powerful as Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Miller’s good taste can’t keep the movie from occasionally becoming overemphatic — did we really need Mark facing a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware when he first visits John’s mansion? Still, it’s remarkable to see this movie turn a lurid murder into a takedown of the myths we Americans like to tell ourselves.
Starring Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. Directed by Bennett Miller. Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Rated R.