On January 26, 1996, Pennsylvania millionaire John Eleuthère du Pont shot and killed Dave Schultz, an Olympic wrestler who’d been living on the du Pont estate with his wife and kids. The murder was unmotivated. Du Pont had been behaving erratically for a while, and witnesses later said that he just seemed to snap that day. That may be why Foxcatcher, the movie about the crime, barely touches on the shooting at all—because there’s nothing much to show or say about a murder that came almost out of nowhere. The incident just happens, at the end of the film, with minimal setup. There’s no crawl or narration to suggest this is where the story is headed, and aside from some scenes of du Pont acting oddly while brandishing guns, the movie doesn’t fuss much with foreshadowing. This is a true-crime story in which the crime is treated as an afterthought.
But that’s okay, because Foxcatcher has a bigger picture to fill out—which it does so carefully and precisely that not until its closing minutes does everything the film has been about come into focus. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman have thought through every scene and every line in Foxcatcher. Nothing is irrelevant. The film proceeds like a well-constructed argument.
Steve Carell plays John du Pont, in a performance that’s gotten a lot of attention for the makeup Carell wears, which makes his nose bigger, his teeth smaller, and his eyes deader. It’s an odd look for Carell, and he matches it with a thin, nasal, monotone voice. The strangeness serves a purpose. John is meant to come across as strongly alien, as the living embodiment of the old F. Scott Fitzgerald line, “the very rich… They are different from you and me.” He’s also meant to seem a little like a child wearing the costume of a wealthy middle-aged man. As depicted in Foxcatcher, John du Pont is always scrambling to impress the rest of his old money family, and especially his emotionally distant mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave). In the movie, John says he’s poured a lot of money into building a world-class training facility for U.S. Olympic wrestlers at his family’s Foxcatcher Farm estate because he’s an American patriot. But he’s also not-so-quietly competing with his mother and her shelves of equestrian trophies.
In real life, John du Pont’s mother died well before the events depicted in Foxcatcher. That’s one of the many dramatic liberties that Miller, Frye, and Futterman take with history to bolster the movie’s themes. In the case of the du Pont character, Foxcatcher contrasts John’s muted feelings of inadequacy with the complicated relationship between brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo plays Dave as a soft-voiced, sweet-natured bear of a man, well-liked by his peers and in demand as a coach and speaker. Tatum’s Mark, on the other hand, is an inarticulate lug who’s spent his entire adult life as “Dave’s brother,” even though both of them are Olympic champions. When John sends for Mark and asks him to anchor “Team Foxcatcher,” Mark jumps at the chance to be the special one. When Mark starts to get the sense that John only courted him to get to Dave, he goes into a deep funk.
Because Foxcatcher deemphasizes the eventual shooting, there’s a “Where is this all going?” quality to the film that makes every scene a little more tense and mysterious. Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser—working closely with Tatum and Ruffalo—bring a darkly shaded intimacy to the wrestling sequences, as the men half-stalk and half-avoid each other before moving in close and grabbing at body parts, in moves simultaneously violent and tender. (The matches are metaphorical without over-stressing the point.) Between training and competing, the wrestlers listen to John, who dresses like them and plays the part of their mentor, even though he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. The movie makes John look eccentric from the start, and puts the audience in the place of first Mark and then Dave, never sure whether this guy is for real.
When in doubt, the Schultzes trust the money. John comes off like a boob when he pontificates about the American dream, demands to be called “Golden Eagle,” and asks his wrestlers vague self-help-manual questions, like, “What do you hope to achieve?” But John lives in a mansion, and he places the Schultzes in nice houses on his property, with strict instructions about where they can and can’t go at Foxcatcher Farm. Foxcatcher is a movie about wealth, class, and aspirations, one that says a lot about how the American plutocracy prevails—by fostering a feeling of lack.
That’s why the main character of Foxcatcher isn’t the killer or his victim. Instead, the movie focuses mostly on Mark, a self-flagellating hulk who envies his brother for having a family and a thriving career, and covets what John has as well. Tatum gives one of the best performances of his career as Mark, revealing subtle changes in his personality (and his body) as he befriends John and then finds him disappointing. Tatum adds a dollop of pathos even to simple lines like, “Do you have a… commode?”—a moment which reveals Mark’s awkwardness and desperation as he tries to fit in with the well-to-do by finding the right fancy word for “toilet.” As Foxcatcher follows Mark into and out of John du Pont’s orbit, the movie takes on a powerfully tragic air, not because of the murder, but because Mark represents the gnawing dissatisfaction that drives some men to greatness, but also keeps them from ever being happy. That’s the stage on which Foxcatcher’s sad final act is set. The stage is dressed impeccably.