Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman have made something icy, tense, profoundly unsettling and fascinating from the real-life story of the twisted relationship between multimillionaire gunpowder heir John du Pont and Olympic gold medal wrestler brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. As played by Steve Carell in a prosthetics-heavy but transformational performance, du Pont is lizard-like thing, watchful, spouting uber-patriotic nonsense, deeply weird, and predatory. For murky reasons, du Pont, who collects war memorabilia and is an ornithologist, has decided to foster and mentor his pick of top young wrestlers, house them and watch them train daily in a sumptuous specially built center on his sprawling East Coast family estate, Foxcatcher.
He wants a Team Foxcatcher, led by Mark (played by Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo), to triumph at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea. Mark, a lost, childlike, impulsive galoot who lives in a rat hole, coasts on his fame by lecturing at high schools and survives on ramen, jumps at the opportunity. The older, calmer and more sensible Dave, who enjoys a good suburban family life in Colorado with a wife (Sienna Miller), resists. “How much does he want?” du Pont asks. Mark tells him, “You can’t buy Dave.”
As the training begins, the dynamic between the mentally unbalanced du Pont and the opportunistic young wrestler becomes more and more sick and curdled, while, in the murky silence, the haunted du Pont mansion is presided over by the terrifying figure of du Pont’s ghostly and despised mother (Vanessa Redgrave).
This is a dark, impeccably made, supremely well-written thriller and character study with so much to say about America’s rich, its obsession with athletes and macho, and the nightmares that can be sprung when urges get sublimated too deeply. Foxcatcher is also technically astonishing, each sound and image perfectly measured and calculated to create an atmosphere of bleak, unsparing dread only occasionally shot through with dark humor.
Not surprisingly, the actors pounce on the gift of such great material. Carell, playing a socially inept cipher with bizarre speech patterns and a closetful of skeletons, vanishes into his role. In a movie that manages to summon shades of Sunset Boulevard and Psycho, Carell is the most memorable cinematic creep in ages. Tatum nicely matches him as an inarticulate brute whom du Pont calls “an ungrateful ape” and whose descent into drugs and self-loathing is pitiful and completely convincing. Ruffalo’s performance is all brotherly warmth, kindness, and common sense and he’s terrific. Redgrave, although used only sparingly, is stunning.
Foxcatcher gets under your skin and stays there. It’s easily one of the best things we’ve seen this year. ****