At its core, Foxcatcher chronicles the desperate friendship that materializes between broken, lonely men: a rich, middle-aged aristocrat living alone in the long shadow of one of the greatest legacy families in American history and a young wrestler who has found that Olympic gold is a hollow victory that leads only to poverty and isolation.
Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz who, by traditional measures of success, is a titan. He’s an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, a national hero. But if you aren’t one of the handful of athletes who leave the games with a Nike or Wheaties endorsement, you find yourself like Mark: alone in a depressing, dingy studio apartment, eating fast food in your car and making ends meet by taking inspirational speaking gigs at local elementary schools for $20 bucks a pop. Mark is also standing in the shadows of his vastly more successful older brother David (Mark Ruffalo, who in my opinion steals the Foxcatcher show). David is articulate, poised and has a successful coaching career, a wife, a family and a home.
Steve Carrell plays John DuPont, an awkward, average man uncomfortable in his place in one of the great American family dynasties. Instead of following in the footsteps of his industrialist great grandfather, John studied ornithology in college and spent his adult life dabbling in various hobbies. He married once in his mid-forties but the union was annulled within 90 days. His days are largely spent alone on his sprawling estate surrounded by the overwhelming weight of the mighty DuPont Corporation. He whiles away the hours by self-medicating with recreational drugs such as cocaine and scopolamine.
In John Dupont, Mark finds hope. DuPont finds the same in Mark. Mark is to oversee the Foxcatcher Olympic training facility on the DuPont family estate. DuPont has taking a billionaire hobbyist interest in the sport of wrestling and wants to privately fund a national champion wrestling team in order to “give hope to America." Foxcatcher is the name of his father’s thoroughbred racehorse dynasty and DuPont sees the team as a means to prove to himself and, more importantly, to his mother that he is worthy of the DuPont name. There’s no true spark of friendship between DuPont and Schultz. They are both so lonely and desperate, however, that they lie to themselves and their respective families and take a progressive series of small missteps that slowly guide them both to ruin.
The casting of Steve Carrell is brilliant. Accounts of the real John Dupont paint him as socially awkward and “a bit off,” but generally benign and harmless. Carrell alloys his well-known signature characters Michael Scott (THE OFFICE) and Brick Tamland (Anchorman) into his portrayal of John Dupont. Strip away the wacky comedy and the real-life Michael Scott and Brick Tamland would be damaged goods; severely wounded, pathetic creatures who crave connection and friendship but are unable to truly find it with the normals of the world. Just like Michael Keaton in this year’s other Oscar contender Birdman, Steve Carrell draws deeply from and comments upon his Hollywood legacy to create a singular performance. I now find it hard to imagine anyone else playing the role of John Dupont.
In Foxcatcher, you’ve got three of the best performances of the year and a fascinating look behind the curtain of one of the most rich and powerful American aristocracies. What truly fascinates me about this film, however, is the wrestling itself. Mark Ruffalo comes from a wrestling family. His father was a state champion wrestler, and Ruffalo wrestled not just in high school but in college for three years. He only left the sport after catching the acting bug in his junior year. Ruffalo and Tatum spent six months training and honing their skills on the mat. They would practice for two hours in the morning and then again for four hours every night, working closely with the USA Wrestling Olympic team. In a pivotal scene in which Mark Schultz must lose 12 and a half pounds in order to make weight at the US Olympic trials, Tatum actually does just that: wrapped in plastic he sweats it out over 3 hours on a stationary bike. Look for a fun cameo by the real Mark Schultz in that scene. Shultz mans the scale, weighing in the naked, exhausted and 12-and-a-half-pounds-lighter Channing Tatum. There are no camera tricks, no stunt doubles, no cutaways. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum became accomplished wrestlers, and if for no other reason, that Herculean feat is worth checking out in Foxcatcher. That the movie is wonderful is just gravy.
This was originally published in the January issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Foxcatcher at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!