“The rich are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald wrote. And that’s largely the theme of “Foxcatcher,” which stands a good chance to emerge from out of the blue in this year’s awards season as a sudden, and startling standout. Although “Foxcatcher” takes place against the backdrop of Olympic wrestling, it would be a mistake to expect “Rocky,” “The Karate Kid” or even “Warrior.” This fact-based tragedy bears more of a resemblance to “Sunset Boulevard.”
There are some family resemblances to director Bennett Miller’s earlier movies “Capote” and “Moneyball” that betray a common creative DNA. The screenplay is written by Dan Futterman, who also wrote “Capote,” but there’s a creative sensibility that runs deeper than that.
A creepy Steve Carell dominates Bennett Miller’s chilly and perverse slice of Americana. Eerily pale, eyebrow-challenged and sporting a prominent, prosthetic proboscis, Carell doesn’t look or for that matter sound much like himself as real life old money heir John E. du Pont, who strikes us immediately as at least eccentric, if not actually sinister.
Miller opens with home movies of a fox hunt, and at one point du Pont rales about its inadequacies as a sport. Whatever the comparative merits; it can hardly be argued that the fox doesn’t actually expect to get out alive. That point is disquietingly relevant here.
The movie opens and closes on Mark Schultz (played by an effectively de-glammed Channing Tatum), a wrestler, who despite having won gold in the 1984 Olympics is living on Ramen noodles in the shadow of his older brother Dave (an almost unrecognizable Mark Ruffalo). Lightning strikes in the form of a sudden invitation from du Pont to train at his Foxcatcher horse farm.
Why du Pont is so consumed with all but owning the Olympic wrestling team isn’t clear; not that it has to be. The movie is more about what he wants than why he wants it, and the fact that he can generally get it. Love of country may have something to do with it:
“I’m an ornithologist,” du Pont tells Mark. “But more importantly I’m a patriot.”
The viewer will can be forgiven if a line from “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” come up: “Philanthropist was cheesemaker and father of four.” There’s something chilling, a little mad, in du Pont’s collections. He’s gun-obsessed, for one thing, to the point of complaining that the armored military vehicle he just bought didn’t come with a machine gun.
The character states flat out that he only had one friend as a child and he clearly has employees rather than friends as an adult. There are some unsettling Freudian overtones where his mother is concerned that evoke Norman Bates. But ultimately du Pont is an Olympian control freak who writes his own testimonials for his employees, and suggests that most of his friends call him “Golden Eagle,” perhaps the result of his ornithological patriotism.
Mark easily falls under his spell, and provides du Pont exactly the sort of man he wants to be associated with. One of the greatest rewards “Foxcatcher” offers is an incredible duet of acting between Carell and Channing Tatum.
Tatum is always at his best when he can unload his almost overwhelming physicality on a role, and here he delivers by far the most emotionally complex and textured performance of his career. He stalks through “Foxcatcher” like a poster child for disillusionment and disappointment, brightening only during his brief honeymoon with du Pont.
There’s clearly nothing in du Pont’s life experience that would tell him there’s anything that can’t be bought. And what he wants, more than anything, is for Mark to persuade his smarter, more seasoned brother Dave to join Team Foxcatcher. When Dave initially declines to uproot his family, du Pont switches gears and almost Satanically exploits Mark’s long-simmering resentment over living in the shadow of his brother.
When his starched and judgmental mother (Vanessa Redgrave) pointedly asks him what should be done with his childhood train set (suggesting a children’s museum), he snaps that he doesn’t care. He has MEN under him now, training for the Olympic wrestling team. In other words, a better train set.
The super cinematography by Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and production design by Jess Gonchor (“Capote,” “No Country for Old Men,” “True Grit,” “Moneyball,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) are devoid of bright colors, and the movie paints a drab tableau of gyms and locker rooms. The museum-like du Pont home near Valley Forge, is emphatically not cozy, trapped in an eternal autumn whose lengthening shadows point towards winter.
“Foxcatcher” inevitably functions as a chilly meditation on the dark underbelly of wealth and inevitable abuse of power that accompanies it. This is a popular theme in American culture, which both reveres and resents wealth. “Citizen Kane,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Reversal of Fortune” are only a few notable classics that have attacked the same thematic territory, and yes, “Foxcatcher” is that good. But just as inevitably the moral fable takes a backseat to a steady, chilly building of suspense as the movie moves inexorably towards its brutal climax. Whether you know the story and what’s coming or not, it’s likely to get a gasp out of you.
“Foxcatcher” opens Friday, December 19th, at the Spectrum 8 Theater on Delaware Avenue in Albany.