In 1997 John du Pont, heir to the DuPont chemical fortune, was convicted of murder and deemed mentally ill. Stories of du Pont’s paranoia and schizophrenia followed the dark events, assuring immortalization in newspapers and true crime shows.
Foxcatcher, while certainly following John du Pont’s (Steve Carell) instability leading up to the shooting, chooses to focus more so on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic wrestler who obsessively trains at his brother Dave’s (Mark Ruffalo) gym. Du Pont decides to sponsor Schultz and finically support him, giving him full access to train in his wrestling facility as well as enlisting him to assistant coach to his eventual team Foxcatcher. The men bond over their loneliness and their desire to achieve greatness, resulting in du Pont becoming a father and brother-like figure to Schultz. Schultz’s training begins slipping as the distractions of du Pont’s wealthy lifestyle run take toll and du Pont eventually calls in Schultz’s brother Dave, also an Olympic winner, and likely more talented coach, to take over. The already volatile relationship between the two is further disrupted by the presence of Dave, as Schultz once again has to live in his brother’s shadow.
The film’s focused intimacy relies heavily on the performances of the three leads, with Channing Tatum and Steve Carell (sporting a prosthetic nose to end all prosthetic noses) delivering what is rightfully being lauded as the best performances of their respective careers. The true praise, however, belongs to Ruffalo– an already proven actor who steals every scene. A performance that culminates in what is easily the most memorable moment of the film– when Dave is interviewed for a documentary on du Pont’s supposed coaching. Ruffalo’s nuance and discomfort is masterfully executed, lending to an incredible role that could have been thankless and underdeveloped if left in less talented hands.
The film as a whole plays like a study on the limits of tone. Director Bennett Miller, no stranger to cold blooded killers with his first breakout Capote (2005), creates a slow but focused pace, aided in no small part by a droning soundscape that recapitulates the film’s dread. Screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (Capote), possibly playing with audience’s knowledge of a bloody outcome, leave the plot sparse with nothing necessarily out in the open nor hidden. While a minimalistic quality plays beautifully in some films, here it falls flat, feeling as though the characters and story were condensed to the point of simplification. The film’s tone and score aren’t enough to save it as it forebodes itself thin, leaving any actual threat feeling like a self conscious effort by the writers to reinvigorate the plot’s tension.
To highlight the film’s potential one must look no further than the true story on which the film was based. It deals heavily with paranoia, schizophrenia, delusions of government plots, employees sheltering and enabling the mental instability out of fear of stopping the money train, and finally, Dave Schultz’s awareness and attempt to help du Pont’s failing mental health. These are all key aspects of the true story that were lost or diluted in the adaptation. While it’s not fair to critique a film for fictionalization or for a lack of authenticity (imagine a truthful adaptation of Millers’ previous film Moneyball , based off a study in statistics by financial journalist Michael Lewis), and the writers clearly did their part in rightfully adding fictional flourishes (the choice to follow Mark instead of Dave or du Pont), there is still an issue when the true story feels more like a movie than the actual movie.
The film’s reduction is echoed in the entrance and exit of du Pont’s character. His introduction, filmed from behind as he scurries across a room to greet Mark, and his exit, similarly thrown away when soon after daintily raising his gun and firing a few murderous shots, he gracefully lowers to the ground in submission to the police. The character is restrained to the point of simplification, leaving Carrel’s other best role, the notorious Michael Scott, somehow more interesting and complex than a murderous unstable schizophrenic. The film ultimately becomes a pressure cooker that doesn’t explode or even boil over, but instead dissipates, delivering a version of minimalism that proves that less isn’t always more.
Foxcatcher opens today in Philly area theaters.