In 1996, a member of one of America’s wealthiest families shot and killed a man in cold blood. It was big news across the country, of course, but here in Philadelphia, the John du Pont case hit pretty close to home, at least geographically speaking. The victim was a world-class wrestler named Dave Schultz, and what’s especially odd about this tragedy is that, by all accounts, John du Pont and Dave Schultz were close friends. Or as close as a multi-millionaire weirdo and a blue-collar no-bullshit wrestler can be, one supposes.
John du Pont died in prison in 2010, and the rest of the people involved with the case have gone on to live quiet lives. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to turn this bizarre story into a movie, and fortunately that someone was Bennett Miller, whose last two films (Moneyball and Capote) managed to turn two difficult subjects into sharply intelligent and slyly entertaining movies. Suffice to say he has pulled off another impressive feat with Foxcatcher, which is an altogether fascinating piece of fact-based storytelling that avoids the obvious conventions and clichés that are generally inherent in “true crime” movies.
In other words, if you’re expecting a vapid and salacious Fox TV sort of biopic, you’ll probably walk away from Foxcatcher a little disappointed. To his credit, Mr. Miller is not all that interested in a providing a point-by-point checklist of key moments; his approach is decidedly more character-based than that. So let’s put aside the “based on actual events” component and just focus on a strange and frequently rather captivating movie about three very different men who used each other for very disparate reasons.
Right off the bat, Miller takes an unexpected approach. Foxcatcher doesn’t focus on the eventual killer, John du Pont, or his victim, Dave Schultz. The central character is actually Dave’s little brother, Mark, and the film takes its sweet time in setting up Mark (Channing Tatum) as the unwitting balance between the quietly creepy tycoon (Steve Carell) and his world-class athlete of a big brother (Mark Ruffalo). So instead of a tragic thriller about a shocking murder, Foxcatcher is a three-tiered character study as well as a soft-spoken indictment of the ways in which the very wealthy often turn talented people into their own property.
The need for approval seems to be one of Foxcatcher’s more prevalent themes; Mark is tired of living in his big brother’s shadow; Dave is driven to excel even after he’s been established as one of the world’s best wrestlers; and du Pont simply needs to feel… something. In some of the film’s most powerful scenes, du Pont leeches approval from his mama like a 10-year-old boy would, and later he surrounds himself with a room of Olympic-level athletes — just so he can be part of a team. Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent throughout, but it’s Carell’s performance that will stick with you the longest.
It’s the subtlety that elevates Foxcatcher beyond the trappings of simply well-made crime stories. Even at its quietest moments, there’s a palpable sense of sadness, desperation, and dread that really start to congeal whenever Steve Carell is on the screen. Mr. Tatum may provide his most emotionally powerful performance to date, and Mr. Ruffalo is as effortlessly convincing as ever, but it’s the dead-eyed and virtually hypnotic performance by Mr. Carell that keeps one captivated — and when you’re dealing with a film in which we already know the outcome, this sort of contribution is very valuable indeed.
Although perhaps a bit too icy, distant, and austere to qualify as a film one would “love,” Foxcatcher is still a remarkably engrossing film, and it’s another piece of evidence that proves Bennett Miller can take a story we already know, and somehow tell it in fresh, novel, and fascinating fashion.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos