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Foxcatcher (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 14, 2021




Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Daniel Hilt, Francis J. Murphy III, Samara Lee, Jackson Frazer, Jane Mowder, David Bennett, Lee Perkins, Robert Haramia, Mark Schultz and the voice of Alan Oppenheimer.

Screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman.

Directed by Bennett Miller.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  130 minutes.  Rated R.

Foxcatcher is based upon a tragic but well-remembered true crime story which took place in the mid-1990s.  (It happened right in my area, so it was a huge story here.)  One day, for no apparent motive, one of the heirs of the vast du Pont Chemical fortune shot and killed a former Olympic gold-medalist wrestler.  Victim Dave Schultz was a respected coach and family man working for du Pont as a trainer for his wrestling team – a costly hobby that du Pont considered his calling in life.

As the smoke cleared on the case, many more questions sprang up than were answered.  Dave Schultz was widely respected, well liked, a born diplomat and a hard worker.  What led du Pont to drive to his house one day and without warning shoot the man three times?

It turned out that du Pont had a very complicated relationship with Schultz and his younger brother Mark, another wrestler who also gained a Gold Medal but had never quite reached Dave’s heights.  Mark was an angry, bitter and less talented athlete, but he was the one who had first worked with du Pont and had urged Dave to come to du Pont’s Delaware County, PA compound to work with du Pont.  It turned out to be a connection that shattered all three lives, and many others around them.

Director Bennett Miller, who has made a sort of specialty of telling true stories on celluloid (he previously made Capote and Moneyball), has a wonderful eye American tales.  Foxcatcher may be his best film yet.  It is certainly his most suspenseful.

For even though most people know exactly how the film is going to end, it still packs a shocking wallop.  It seems almost random, a tragic confluence of bad luck, insecurity, pride and allowing money to color one’s natural instincts.

Foxcatcher puts a microscope on these relationships and comes out with one of the most devastating looks at modern America to come out of Hollywood.  It is beautifully filmed, smartly paced and subtly told, a master class in how to tell a true story on film.

Of course, part of the films brilliance stems from a series of fantastic acting jobs, particularly by the two leads.

I officially apologize for calling Tatum the Keanu Reeves of the new millennium in my review of Son of No One a few years ago.  Since then he has taken on some adventurous and very different roles and done a terrific job with them, and his portrayal of Mark Schultz in this film is his best so far.

The film opens with Mark on the downslide, three years after winning his medal his life is down to eating ramen noodles in a tiny apartment and occasionally scoring a speaking gig at a school that usually has confused him for his brother.  His time in the spotlight is quickly slipping away and Mark is bitter and desperate to hold on to a career that is for all intents and purposes pretty much over.

Things change when Mark receives a call to meet up with multi-millionaire John E. du Pont to discuss his dream of creating a compound on his estate to train young wrestlers for Olympic glory.  Mark is so out of the loop that he has no clue who the man is, or even who his family was.  However, he has nothing to lose, so he takes the trip to the Philadelphia suburbs and is seduced by the man’s obvious passion for the sport and the country.  And while it is obvious that du Pont’s knowledge of the sport is much more rudimentary than he thinks, Mark sees him as an enthusiastic benefactor with extremely deep pockets.

However, he doesn’t quite notice that du Pont is what some people would call an “eccentric” millionaire – spoiled, aloof, needy, condescending and occasionally prone to unexpected outbursts of anger.

Du Pont is played by comedian Steve Carell, though he is rendered nearly unrecognizable by makeup and a prosthetic nose.  He plays the millionaire as a man uncomfortable in his own skin, trying desperately to fit in a world that he simply is not part of.  Du Pont’s sense of self has been pretty much destroyed by his relationship with his icy mother (Vanessa Redgrave in a devastating, if small, role) and his inability to gain her approval.

However, other than his mother, no one ever told du Pont no.  He is surrounded by yes men and sycophants and loves the attention.  He is used to using money to get what he wants – he ruefully tells a pathetic story of finding out that his mother had to pay his only childhood friend – but now it is simply second nature to him.

The more settled, more talented older brother Dave is much more skeptical about du Pont.  However as du Pont’s relationship with Mark starts to crumble the tycoon pressures Dave to join the team, eventually giving the man an offer he can’t refuse.  Mark Ruffalo, who is also mostly unrecognizable in makeup, a full beard and with balding hair, has a much smaller role than the other two, but he also acquits himself stellarly, then again Ruffalo is always a good bet for a terrific performance.

While Miller plays a little fast and loose with the timeline of the story – the actual murder took place nearly eight years after most of the action shown in the story, though in the film it appears to be soon after – the rest of the story is told pretty straight.

For example, the film very subtly acknowledges the potential of a homoerotic context in du Pont’s interest in Mark, which has been long considered a potential contributor to the eventual explosion.  However, nothing has ever been proven to have happened, so the film goes to great pains to not sensationalize this possibility.

Instead, Miller lets the story reveal itself incrementally, slowly building a sense of dread that eventually becomes devastating.  Foxcatcher is sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying, but always a trenchant and smart character study of a modern world off its treadle.  Don’t be surprised to be hearing a lot about this movie come Oscar time.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: November 28, 2014.

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