Money can’t buy happiness. If you haven’t learned that already through experience, then perhaps the words of Charles Dickens hinted as much back in grade school. It’s an old adage that’s universally agreed upon yet never carried out, which explains why the majority of Americans continue to strangle dollars for smiles in hopes of chasing down the American Dream. Here’s the problem with that, though: Much of that dream has to do with carving out an identity, also something money can’t buy.
That idea fuels Bennett Miller’s true story depiction of wealthy heir John du Pont and his tragic involvement with Olympic Gold Medal-winning wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz. Screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman parallel the nonexistent relationship of du Pont (Steve Carell) and his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) to that of the unwieldy bond between Mark (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). What occurs is a struggle for identity by two tortured souls living in the shadows of two more accomplished figures. Their actual worth, however, is what proves to be their undoing.
On the surface, du Pont has everything at his fingertips: a sprawling estate, national acclaim, and decades of prestigious history to lean upon. Outside of a gold medal, Mark owns a beat-up car and lives in an empty studio apartment, where he eats a bowl of ramen each night alone. When du Pont personally invites Mark to live and train at his state-of-the-art facilities on Foxcatcher Farm in the hopes that he’ll coach the troubled wrestler to victory in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the two believe they’re on their way to redemption.
The problem, then, becomes du Pont. He’s not a coach, a title he bought rather than earned, and that inexperience affects his relationship with Mark, enough that he eventually brings in Dave as a last resort. To his surprise, however, Dave represents an even greater challenge to du Pont; he’s strong, confident, and willing to question his benefactor’s motives. He also provides something for Mark that du Pont deeply wants but will never have: love and support.
Without spoiling too much, the film ends in tragedy, and it’s a sobering conclusion, namely because so much leads up to that final moment. To Miller’s credit, the abrupt occasion is tailored with a line of tension that quietly charges the film’s otherwise dreary 130 minutes. Full disclosure: I did not know about the story before viewing, which only added a curious layer of mystery that I simply attributed to Carell’s unnatural presence. His stoic eyes and death stares always stress that something is going to happen, and it usually does, though it’s mostly verbal barbs or light physical threats.
Carell delivers an understated performance as du Pont, but anything else would feel unwarranted. He’s the heart of the film, acting as a centerpiece between Tatum and Ruffalo, and it’s through their two characters that we come to slightly understand a character as complex and twisted as du Pont. The form is not without its faults, however, as Miller loses his balance on the story’s time as he juggles the three characters. Part of the reason the conclusion is so jarring is simply because it jumps ahead in the story so casually.
But there’s always something to marvel at in Foxcatcher — especially Tatum. Any leftover critics still unconvinced of his talents after Magic Mike or both Jump Street films will be eating fried crow following this performance. As Mark, he’s a magnificent and emotional monster who absorbs the scenery with his physicality. Tatum wields a barrage of emotions through his own body language, elevating much of the action that takes place, whether it’s struggling with an opponent on the mat or waiting nervously in du Pont’s living room.
Much of that intensity could also be attributed to Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser, who craft an unusual intimacy with jarring close shots brilliantly juxtaposed against expansive landscapes. This dichotomy imbues Foxcatcher with a magnetism that also embraces its collection of distant settings, from du Pont’s old money isolation to Mark’s sequestered habits to even Dave’s private home life. Not once is there a dull shot.
What’s intriguing about Foxcatcher is how it’s such a multifaceted film. It’s a true story, a classic tragedy, and a cautionary tale with the potential of leaving its audiences either depressed, perplexed, or motivated to call their siblings. There isn’t anything warm about this film; it’s as cold and calculated as Miller’s past work on Capote. Those who enjoy catching his friendlier film Moneyball on HBO will likely skip this down the road after an initial viewing.
Regardless, Miller’s merciless direction and strong performances by Carell, Tatum, and the ever lovable Ruffalo make Foxcatcher one of this season’s more essential viewings. It’s an alluring production with depressing consequences — no different than that dream some of us chase each day.