When John Eleuthère du Pont was arrested for murder in the mid-Nineties, the press described him as off his rocker. The multimillionaire heir to part of the vast chemical empire had styled himself “the Dalai Lama of America” and once showed up at a neighboring family’s house in an Army-issue tank to ask if the husband “could come out and play.”
But, as du Pont in Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s filming of this grim tale, Steve Carell isn’t nearly so flashy. From the start the man is odd, yes; that’s apparent from Carell’s walk, a mincing saunter that emphasizes his doughy middle, his every move led by a prosthetic nose that’s both accurate and startlingly ugly. Still, Carell’s du Pont takes a while to suggest outright insanity, such as when an armored personnel carrier is delivered to his mansion.
Miller isn’t really all that interested in the story of du Pont’s breakdown. Lonely and paranoid as this heir may be, du Pont also bluntly, unapologetically believes he’s rich because he’s superior, that his name is his grand American destiny. Miller shows that on the contrary, du Pont’s character was his destiny—though the same was not true of his victims.
Foxcatcher is both moral fable and updated, same-sex Gothic: a penniless young person is lured to a vast, sinister mansion owned by an aristocrat tormented by his past. In the screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, the unsuspecting guest is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a wrestler and Olympic gold medalist fallen on hard times, if indeed he ever had good ones. Mark’s caught in a world of hideous buildings and cheap food, his one outlet being wrestling training sessions with his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Even those workouts seem joyless; the bruising movements mime huggy affection, while flesh slaps against flesh and the brothers’ shoes squeak on the floor.
As the decent but irretrievably lunkish Mark, Tatum moves as though his muscles are boxing him in. Nagged by the fear that he’s a poor second to his charming, more talented brother, Mark is the perfect target for du Pont’s come-on. When Mark flies on du Pont’s private helicopter to Foxcatcher, the family estate, Miller’s overcast, wet-cement palette suddenly gives way to sparkling sunshine, green fields, and the iridescent white of the house. It’s a change almost no one could resist.
Du Pont has erected a huge training facility, where he wants to build an Olympic-caliber wrestling program grandiosely called “Team Foxcatcher.” It’s soon apparent, though, that he’s really after Dave. Played by Ruffalo as a guileless, sweet-natured family man, Dave at first isn’t interested. “You can’t buy Dave,” Mark tells du Pont; what follows is an exquisitely long pause, punctuated by a perfect “huh” from Carell.
Du Pont could and did buy Dave, however; the elder brother’s arrival on the estate signals the long slide into tragedy. Miller’s relentless accumulation of detail crawls under the skin like a horror movie: du Pont’s habit of appearing out of nowhere to bark questions and make speeches; the echoing, eerily expansive spaces created by all that wealth; Mark’s rejection of his brother when he realizes du Pont was using him as a lure.
The exceedingly spare sound design lets the actors build performances from the tiniest noises. Tatum, as a man almost physically incapable of communicating, wrings eloquence from grunts. When Dave, being videotaped for a vanity video on the team, is asked to describe his boss as a “mentor,” Ruffalo’s breathing says as much as his face.
“It’s a low sport,” says Vanessa Redgrave, playing du Pont’s mother in a couple of brief scenes that may be a little too pat in explaining why the man is the way he is. “And I don’t like to see you being low.” In fact, Miller himself shows little affection for wrestling. The movie’s bouts are Hobbesian—nasty, brutish, and short— and who wins has little or nothing to do with the Olympic virtues preached every four years. By the end, it’s evident that the filmmakers feel the same way about the American class system.