Foxcatcher is a slow, gripping, fact-based movie about a bizarre and lonely heir to the Du Pont fortune whose obsession with the sport of wrestling eventually led him to commit a pointless and vicious murder. What makes Foxcatcher compelling is that its story, its setting, and its characters are so odd, so singular, so unlike anything we’ve seen before.
In the first place, wrestling is a deeply weird activity; its homoerotic aspects are so inescapable that early scenes of the two Schultz brothers at the heart of the story, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark (Channing Tatum), training together seem basically incestuous. John du Pont (Steve Carell), who paid through the nose so he could host the sport’s Olympic training facility at his family estate in Pennsylvania, was a profoundly strange person whose mother had to pay her chauffeur’s son to be his childhood friend. Du Pont encourages Mark, an emotionally isolated and inarticulate child-man living on scraps of money despite his two Olympic gold medals, to train at Foxcatcher Farms.
Mark comes to worship Du Pont. But for reasons that seem to have been left on the cutting-room floor—possibly something to do with the resentment of Du Pont’s mother and some unfulfilled sexual urge on the older man’s part—Du Pont shuts Mark down and begins to cultivate the more sociable and worldly Dave. This is a torment to Mark and a financial godsend to Dave. Eventually, it seems to drive Du Pont into madness.
The three actors are exemplary. Carell, who has already demonstrated his chops playing a man of questionable character in last year’s The Way Way Back, is chilling in his depiction of the delusional Du Pont. Ruffalo offers a layered portrait of deep sweetness mixed with sibling-rival guile. And Tatum, the leading male box-office sensation of the past couple of years and an expert comic actor like the other two, is absolutely heartbreaking.
Everything is set here for a downbeat but fascinating Fargo-like journey, and for the most part, that’s what you get. But Foxcatcher’s director, Bennett Miller, and screenwriters Dan Fogelman and E. Max Frye are convinced they have an Important Cautionary Tale About American Greed and Inequality on their hands, and they weigh Foxcatcher down with unnecessary sociological portent. The film begins with Mark making a witless and dull patriotic speech for $20 to a depressed group of schoolchildren, and it ends with someone fighting a bloody cage match in front of a crowd of yahoos chanting “U-S-A.”
Foxcatcher’s oddball set of facts can’t bear the weight. I suppose it means something that the villain here carries the name of Du Pont, but John’s membership in a very large and wealthy American family tells us nothing about the bizarreries of his behavior. Clearly, the creative team here was tickled by the fact that Du Pont and Mark Schultz apparently shared anti-Communist politics—but those have little to do with the conduct of a dilettante orni-thol-o-gist--cum--coke-head who was evidently thrilled by the sight of muscular young men slamming each other around a wrestling ring. And the film suggests it was corrupt of the Olympic wrestling establishment to allow Du Pont to sponsor the team—that it just shows rich people can buy anything.
That’s a peculiar tack for this movie to take once you consider that Foxcatcher’s producer, Megan Ellison, is herself an heiress to the Oracle software billions that have made it possible for her to write checks in the tens of millions to bring movies like this one (and Zero Dark Thirty and The Master) to the screen in hopes of winning an Oscar, much as John du Pont hoped to be the motive cause of a gold medal.
The people Foxcatcher depicts, and the tale it tells, represent nothing but themselves. Miller and his writers should have left America out of it.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.