- Foxcatcher dir. by Bennett Miller
There is a scene roughly halfway through Foxcatcher—Bennett Miller’s film version of the events leading up to a crime that brought the sport of wrestling tabloid headlines in the mid-1990s—in which an inebriated John du Pont punctuates a celebratory speech addressed to the members of his Foxcatcher wrestling team by playfully initiating a mass wrestling match. The camera catches du Pont flashing a gleeful smile—conspicuously at odds with his peering, emotionless eyes—as he compels his stable of elite athletes to participate in the forced fraternalism of awkward roughhousing.
Under Miller’s direction, there is nothing light about this horseplay. As in nearly all of the film’s scenes depicting physical interactions between du Pont and members of his team, this sequence evokes the grotesque machinations behind the sporting dynasty that du Pont attempted to establish. The film opens not long after the 1984 Olympics, when, following his gold medal victory, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) attempts to draw a meager income as a guest speaker, straining to hit all the expected notes of optimism and national pride. He receives a phone call in his Spartan apartment one evening from a representative of du Pont (Steve Carell), a wrestling enthusiast who has spent a portion of his family fortune on building a training facility near Philadelphia that he feels will draw the nation’s top wrestlers and, subsequently, help “this country soar again.” Feeling increasingly obscured by the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo)—also a gold medalist in 1984, whose coaching abilities were in high demand by USA Wrestling—Mark agrees to join du Pont. After Mark’s focus wanes (due in no small part to his new coach’s strange behavior and imposed paternal relationships with his athletes), du Pont persuades Dave to join the team, leading to a struggle over who should take control of Mark’s preparation for the1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul.
Foxcatcher’s strengths lie in its examination of the linkages between sport and myth-making, particularly as a response to compromised masculinity and the persistent demands for easily consumable jingoism. Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman painstakingly depict wrestling as a sport uniquely situated to simultaneously exhibit and give the lie to normative masculine athletic traits. Du Pont has the resources to buy his way into the wrestling elite, but he orchestrates and amplifies his accomplishments to impress his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who takes more interest in her prizewinning horses than in her offspring. He clutches at patriarchal respect with his Foxcatcher recruitment videos and the speeches he offers his team members, which boast about his role as a “mentor” and father figure without demonstrating any justification for such titles. Convincing Mark that the United States “failed to honor” his athletic accomplishments, du Pont deploys vapid patriotism as his key recruitment strategy. Soon he has Mark parroting the same rhetoric, first in an attempt to coax his brother into the Foxcatcher camp and later while delivering a du Pont–scripted speech that introduces his new coach as “the golden eagle of America.” [End Page 221]
Impressively conveying the fragility of the seemingly harmonious sporting community that du Pont wished to construct, Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser maintain a tone of ominous frigidity—the sun rarely shines on the du Pont estate and the shadowy interiors are typically lacking in warmth or relaxed domesticity. Giving du Pont a vacant squint and modulated speech pattern, Carell’s performance successfully matches the general iciness. As Dave Schultz, Ruffalo provides a physical and affective counterpoint to Carell’s calculation. The script does not provide a clear explanation of why Dave eventually ignores his initial doubts about du Pont to join Foxcatcher. But it manages to subtly chart Dave’s internal conflicts as he adopts the task of alleviating his brother’s propensity for self-flagellation and nagging sense of being underestimated. Tatum is at his best when he shows Mark pummeling his way through these anxieties. Early in the film, Mark and Dave warm up during a practice session...