In the broadest of brushstrokes, Foxcatcher is a drama about the corrupting nature of power and wealth, America¹s national obsession with sporting prowess and, perhaps most of all, masculinity. It’s an oblique, complex study of the different shapes and shades of love that men feel for one another, love that sometimes takes a fraternal or paternal form, and sometimes a more erotic hue, and perhaps even a mixture of both. That may all sound maddingly vague and teasing, but even though the film’s plot was inspired by real events widely reported at the time, it’s best to learn as little as possible about the content, so you can fully savour this superb film’s twists and turns.
For those who insist on knowing a little more, here’s the gist. When the story starts somewhere in the mid-1980s, none-too-bright professional wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, on searing form) seems to have already left his glory years as an Olympic gold medallist behind him. Living off pot noodles and chump change for speaking engagements, he’s easily swayed when weird billionaire sponsor John du Pont (a nearly recognisable Steve Carell, knocking it out of the park with his first straight dramatic role) invites him to coach a wrestling team he wants based at his lavish estate on the East Coast. Team Foxcatcher is launched.
Mark agrees and the two men become very close, although the film draws a discreet veil over revealing just how close they were. Let’s just say, judging by a bravura scene involving a helicopter and some cocaine, it’s inferred there may be more going on than meets the eye, at least in terms of desire. Eventually, Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo, adding a baseline of warm likeability to the core trio) joins Foxcatcher as well, complicating the triangle of power and affection between the three men.
The problem is du Pont turns out to be a warped control freak, hungry not just for glory for the team but also for adulation and loyalty from his employees. Mercurial and manipulative, he ends up alienating the Schultz brothers.
The result is an American tragedy that could have come straight out of the pages of a book by Truman Capote, a writer who was the subject of director Bennett Miller’s first film, Capote, which explored the eponymous subject’s relationship with the murderers profiled for his first book In Cold Blood. As a director, Miller is clearly fascinated by what kind of fireworks are ignited by the confluence of money, power and violence as well as the peculiar intensity of professional sport, the subject of his last film, the Brad Pitt baseball drama Moneyball. In a way, this film does for wrestling what Raging Bull did for boxing (more so than Darren Aronofsky¹s overrated The Wrestler), revealing character and drama through the bouts of grappling on the mats in a way that’s every bit as expressive as ballet.
The acting by the ensemble cast has rightly been praised, but what really impresses is how cohesive the film is on every level. The slow-burn editing builds up a disquieting, queasy head of suspense so that viewers just know, without being aware of anything about the backstory, that something very bad is going to happen in the last act. Exquisitely calibrated art direction, sound design and cinematography gild the lily of what is a troubling but astonishingly well-made piece of work.