Bennett Miller, whose directorial credits include Capote and Moneyball, could be considered something of a fictional documentarian in evolution. His first film, a true documentary, The Cruise (1998) followed a fast-talking New York City tour guide by the name of Timothy “Speed” Levitch, both on the job and in his semi-depressed other life. What gave the film soul, besides Levitch’s outpouring of quirk, was Miller’s ability to tap into the human element of his subject, capturing Levitch at his chest-beating highs and self questioning lows. (Side note: the two went to high school together.)
On the other hand, Capote and Moneyball are liberally adapted spins on real lives and real events (you could call them docudramas but that feels like a dirty word given what Miller has achieved). Both feature transportive incarnations by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the latter film garnering perhaps the finest performance of Brad Pitt’s square-jawed career. Miller’s latest, Foxcatcher is another in the mold of those films, and given its themes of lazy entitlement and the dark underbelly of the American dream, it’s undoubtedly, the indie auteur’s most pointed social exploration so far.
The sweet, epic tapestry that weaves together Foxcatcher comes through the interlace of three sublime performances by three very different thespians — and until this film, that term may only have had application to one of the troupe. The deep, contemplative character rendering from that one, Mark Ruffalo, as 1984 Olympic wrestling champ Dave Schultz, you’d expect. You also may have an indication from Magic Mike that Channing Tatum was growing expansively as an actor, and here, in that realization, the former dreamy beefcake delivers his most complete and nuanced effort as Dave’s younger brother Mark, who also struck Olympic gold in Seoul. The performance from Steve Carell however — nearly unrecognizable with a prosthetic nose as the eccentric do-nothing billionaire John Du Pont — stuns, not only because it’s so provocative and meticulously served, but because it plays against everything Carell has done to date. It’s the antithesis to The 40-Year-Old Virgin and a bellwether of what the affable comic is truly capable of.
Mark and Du Pont are laid out as fractured people from the onset. Mark, in the shadow of his golden moment shuffles through the day-to-day adrift, living barely above the poverty line. Du Pont on the other hand is bored, self-important, and through some odd obsessive affliction that we never really taste on-screen sees himself as the saving patron of wrestling. As a result, he has founded a wrestling institution on the grounds of his sprawling estate, Foxcatcher.
How the two come together is part out of admiration and part need. Out of the blue, Du Pont dials up Mark and invites him to swing by Foxcatcher, despite it being states away. After one all-expenses paid visit, Mark and Du Pont seem to come to a mutually beneficial relationship — although Du Pont’s megalomaniacal tendencies, as well as homoerotic panderings for Mark, are sure to derail their partnership. Du Pont also wants Mark’s brother Dave in his stable, but Dave’s an idealist and doesn’t want to relocate his family to Foxcatcher. However every man has a price, and when Du Pont buys his post as the official sponsor of the U.S. Wrestling Team, Dave comes into the fold. And as history has recorded, things go terribly wrong (if you don’t recall the course of events, hold off your googling until after you’ve seen the movie).
If Carell’s Du Pont — whom the actor manages to cast in a sympathetic light despite being a man trapped inside mounds of unearned money, maniacal delusions, fear of failure, and lack of worldly awareness — is the awe in Miller’s production, then the simple brute that is Dave is its heart. His awkward apish gate and demurring affect endears the same way Lenny does in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. He’s knowing and in control when on the mat, but short on direction and wisdom outside the gym, something Du Pont seems to realize and leverages with the help of some cocaine. Tatum’s one great scene comes after Dave suffers an unlikely loss (more due to hubris and coke than lack of skill), and when back in the hotel room, he goes rock star on his accommodations and binge eats mountainous trays of room service. It’s the one time the hulking grappler unleashes his rage, something that looms under the covers of nearly every scene and deep within the guts of the two main protagonists. It’s subtle, but always there, simmering and driving into the heart of an American tragedy.