Several millennia ago, the Greeks defined hubris as the pride that goeth before the fall. In the ’80s, people defined cocaine as God’s way of letting you know you were making too much money. Somewhere at the intersection is Foxcatcher, whose message is that sometimes you have so much money you don’t know you’re falling, or are under the psychotic belief that it can cushion your landing.
Hubris and cocaine—and class, privilege, tribalism and murder—are the stuff of the latest film by Bennett Miller, one of our leading producers of intelligent, deftly understated and deceptively suspenseful drama, as exemplified by “Capote” (2005), which has the distinction of having won Philip Seymour Hoffman his only Oscar, and “Moneyball” (2011), which has the distinction of being a smart sports movie. “Foxcatcher” is based on the case of John du Pont—ornithologist, conchologist, philatelist, published scholar, Olympic wrestling enthusiast and heir to one of America’s largest fortunes—who (spoiler alert) perpetrated one of the more sensational yet strangely under-sung crimes in the annals of American jurisprudence: The murder of the Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996, for which du Pont went to prison in 1997. He died there in 2010.
And yet it can’t possibly be a true spoiler to reveal all this, even if it takes Miller well over two hours to get to it, since the case is public record and the du Ponts—beneficiaries of a chemical dynasty founded on the manufacture of gunpowder—are among the country’s more prominent families. Still, Miller will benefit from the fact that so few moviegoers drawn to a film starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo will have heard of the case, and that the mystery within “Foxcatcher” is less about crime than personalities—specifically, John du Pont (Carell) and Mark Schultz (Tatum), the wrestler he hires to bring his Olympic wrestling dreams to fruition.
A gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles games, yet still living in his brother Dave’s shadow, Mark is a guy who, before the golden phone call from du Pont, is giving motivational talks to teenagers for $20 and stuffing himself on fast food. The question Mark will inevitably prompt in his audience—“Shouldn’t an athlete of his stature be doing better than high schools and Happy Meals?”—he already wears like a ragged cloak over his hunched and muscle-bound shoulders. Tatum will almost certainly be eclipsed amid the media response to “Foxcatcher” by Carell’s prosthetic-driven performance (the honker he wears in “Foxcatcher” is a virtual bumper hitch). But Tatum is giving a performance just as nuanced as his co-star’s, and in a far less gratifying role.
Carell? His work in “Foxcatcher” will hardly be a revelation for those who have seen his noncomedic performances in “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Hope Springs” or, especially, “The Way Way Back,” even if du Pont is something of an eccentric leap.
But what really makes “Foxcatcher” such an exhilaratingly breathless experience—20 minutes in, I had to consciously relax the muscles in my legs—is that nothing that matters is ever spoken. Are they seeing what we are seeing? That Mark is so desperate to find something to latch onto—something separate from his brother, especially—that he would leap at du Pont’s eccentric and lushly financed plan to headquarter the U.S. Olympic team at his Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania and buy his way into becoming a leader of men? Does du Pont have any clue to the pathetic figure he cuts, a rich pampered poser who craves the testosterone contact high he gets from hanging out with wrestlers? Is either John or Mark remotely aware of the dismay felt by Dave Schultz (Ruffalo), who is instinctively repelled by du Pont, but who loves his brother enough not to burst his wobbly balloon?
For all its virtuous silences, the screenplay, credited to Dan Futterman (“Capote”) and E. Max Frye (“Something Wild”), is first rate, and Ruffalo is just about perfect: When Mark triumphantly announces how he got du Pont to agree to pay him the unprincely sum of $25,000 (“It was the first figure that jumped into my head,” Mark says exultantly), Dave looks on with forced admiration, and at this stranger he calls his brother.
As good as Ruffalo is, though, “Foxcatcher” is a Carell-Tatum pas de deux. Both move like wounded animals—Mark from injuries, du Pont from inertia. Neither has a vague acquaintance with reality. Both fall into a campaign of cocaine abuse that derails Mark’s training and may account for why du Pont seems to be balancing his nose on his face the way a seal would a beach ball. But for all the causes and corruptions they have in common, what lies between John and Mark is an enormous gulf, filled with money.
Du Pont’s sense of entitlement knows no bounds. One of the marvelous mechanisms employed by Carell is the look of bewilderment that du Pont affects whenever something doesn’t remotely go his way. In a world—du Pont’s world—where toadies abound and sycophants flourish, he simply cannot fathom a contradictory position. The one governing entity in his life is his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who gazes upon this boy-man she gave birth to, this counterfeit obsessed with the “low” sport of wrestling, with a combination of regret and disgust. Redgrave has only moments of screen time, but they are essential. Du Pont is so repugnant one feels sorry for his awful mother.
Mark, on the other hand, does not have the depth of intellect to form a coherent philosophical or spiritual attitude about his place in the universe. He is a free radical, orbiting his brother, who becomes the center of the universe not just for Mark but for du Pont as well. Where this leads is a tragic denouement; but again, it is not really what the movie is about.
It is said that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. We cannot say what E. I. du Pont was up to when he founded the family fortune back in 1802. But in the case of the modern-day du Ponts, the crime is front and center—and, according to Miller, the fortune lay behind it.