America has failed Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), the wrestler who won his country the gold medal in 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Or Schultz may have failed himself. Foxcatcher’s first ten minutes tell us that something is gnawing at Schultz, but we don’t really know what. What we do know, instead, is this: Three years after winning the Olympic gold, this champion wrestler lives in a cramped, dimly lit apartment, cooks and eats dinner by himself, and his facial expressions perpetually exhibit betrayal and befuddlement. We soon understand what’s troubling Schultz; he craves validation, and feels uncomfortable that his elder brother and coach, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic gold medalist, has hogged all the limelight. When Mark speaks to children at a local school, he clutches his medal, holds it up, and tells them, “This is more than just some piece of medal. It’s about what the medal represents. The virtues it requires to attain it.” Mark may well have been pleading, “Please recognise me.” We later get to know that Mark wasn’t invited to the school; his elder brother was. Similarly, his practice sessions with Dave are marked with desperation to prove a point; Mark doesn’t just practice with Dave, he competes. Mark lives alone; Dave lives with his wife and two kids. Dave has truly trumped Mark.
So when multi-millionaire wrestling enthusiast John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) flies out Mark to his Pennsylvania mansion, and tells him what he wants to hear — that American has, indeed, failed a champion like him and, later, that he’s been unfairly overshadowed by his elder brother — the wrestler soon transforms into an interested audience. And that’s precisely what du Pont wants — an interested or, rather, an intelligent listener. Du Pont invites Mark to join his wrestling team, Team Foxcatcher, to train for the 1988 Olympics, and get paid for it. It’s an offer Mark can’t refuse. Du Pont wants a protégé; Mark needs a mentor. But du Pont’s want to lead is not just ambition; it’s obsession. We get to know du Pont closely through smart, sharp writing — at one point in the film, du Pont confides in Mark that barring his chauffer’s kid, his was a friendless childhood. But that wasn’t it: As he grew up, he got to know that his mother had paid the chauffer’s son to befriend him. You need to know just this bit of du Pont’s backstory to understand the kind of attention-seeking man he grew up to be.
As du Pont and Mark gradually get to know each other, you see a friendship so intense that it can be mistaken for love. Besides, these two men have lived similar lives, and are seeking similar things: kinship, validation, and recognition. Du Pont and Mark’s relationship is not very dissimilar from the bonding Paul Thomas Anderson’s male leads (Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman) shared in The Master — a curious companionship forged out of dominance, servility, fondness, love and shared sadness. But unlike The Master, Foxcatcher drops just enough hints about its characters that we want to know them, and their relationships, better. So even though Du Pont’s final move may leave you totally nonplussed, an act similar in intent to Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master, Foxcatcher’s climax doesn’t simply obfuscate, but also intrigue, you. And this could be possible because Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher’s director, is as insightful a director as any when it comes to adapting real-life stories to screen. His last two films, Moneyball and Capote, too, were intimate portrayals of men uniquely driven and consumed by their passion.
But, even with Miller’s ingenuity, Foxcatcher could have been a lesser film if not for the astonishing acting by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. Carrel essays the role of du Pont — a 50-year-old millionaire heir, hungry for his mother’s approval but also silently resenting her — with absolute aplomb. For someone who never shouldered meaningful responsibility and, by that account, couldn’t truly become an adult, du Pont is a tricky character to pull off because it’s devoid of an arc and is, for the most part, static. Carrel plays du Pont like an automaton, someone who is simply going through the motions, determined to keep his facial façade intact, and not let out a hint about the anger and malice he’s repressed for long.
Then there’s Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz who, unlike du Pont, is someone we are all familiar with — a family guy who is content with making a good living. But, as we get to know him better, we understand his unique quandary: He’s caught in between protecting his brother and providing for his family. Ruffalo, as Dave, hides his disgust and discomfit with complete assurance, emerging a revelation by the time the end credit’s roll.
But, the most searing performance in Foxcatcher comes from the guy who, unlike the other two actors in the film, didn’t get nominated at this year’s Academy Awards: Tatum. Tatum’s Mark Schultz, in contrast to du Pont, undergoes slow, distinct transformations in the film: An unsure Olympic champion becomes, for a brief while, a content cokehead, who eventually has to confront something he was so dreading all along — failure. It’s a role that may look relatively easy on paper, as compared to the roles of du Pont and Dave, just because it’s got a definitive arc, but look closely, and you will notice that we perceive markedly different Mark Schultzs in the film because of Tatum, who juggles sundry versions of his character with incredible ease.
Miller’s Foxcatcher is a rare achievement — it reminds us of the insecurities and insanities humans harbour, painstakingly concealed by a restrained exterior, and the fact that we are mad in our own unique ways, what differentiates the sane from the insane is his shrewd ability to hide and accept his madness.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian