The film opens with a Ken Burns-esque archival montage of Foxcatcher Farm, presumably during its prime. Little flickering film clips from the early 19th century showing Ivy League-ers preparing for a fox hunt. Fast forward to an elementary school parking lot in 1986. Sitting in a tiny beat up junker of a car is the quiet, hulking Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). He’s there to give a speech to a group of less enthused grade schoolers about wrestling and America. He may be an Olympic Gold Medal winner and at the top of his athletic career- but he’s still the alternate, filling in for his equally if not more impressive older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) who couldn’t make it.
Dave, played with such a blue-collar, American heartland charm by Ruffalo, turns out to be quite the saint to Mark. He’s his trainer and only friend. Both meet everyday to train mercilessly for the next Olympic games and at this level of professional athletics, you get the impression that all Mark really knows, breathes, and lives is wrestling. Hence the uncomfortable silence he seems to bring anywhere that calls for social interaction.
So where does this enigma du Pont work into all of this? There’s no bump into, no stop and chat, nothing to foreshadow these two men ever coming together. It’s a call out of the blue. Du Pont asks for a meeting to discuss Mark’s future, but when they do meet face to face, they only skirt on the topic of wrestling. They move into vague terms about America; its lack of role models, its lack of appreciation for its heroes, and their goals to, “make it great again.” They’re only real overlap in character is a shared vision for America, which they don’t really come out and say. This is your own fox hunt. Finding out what’s really going on inside their heads.
Miller’s niche character is the lonely misfit. Truman Capote and Billy Beane in his previous films were loners with a drive to do something they felt was bigger than themselves; something that nobody else really could see or understand at the time. In this one it’s Du Pont. Although unlike Miller’s other protagonists, du Pont’s mission is hazy. To really understand du Pont is impossible. Raised by money, not a friend in the world, presumably a genius, mother’s boy- he’s really is a mixed bag with many erratic personality changes. He strives to be a “leader of men,” but doesn’t have the slightest idea how. He has a spectator’s love for wrestling, but without the technical expertise to coach, he’s only able to position himself as an ominous benefactor. Regardless, he still holds the ego-stroking title of “Coach”. One day he’s like a father to Mark. The next it’s like he’s never even seen him before.
Comic actors are almost always equally great dramatic performers. Think Jim Carrey. Think Bill Murray. These guys, under the costumes and jokes, usually have hearts filled with darkness that they can tap into every once in awhile. This has the added caveat of Carell using heavy prosthetics and makeup, which could easily be a distraction, but it really doesn’t. It helps it. The personality and choices of du Pont are so outlandish; the portrayal of him visually needs to match that. Receding hair line, blotchy skin, face with a freakishly beak-ish nose. But Carell isn’t the only one who made dramatic physical changes. Tatum contorts his face with a massive gorilla-like under bite and goes through bulk and lean periods that give the film a visual timeline to follow. Ruffalo walks around with a hunched wrestler’s posture that looks strikingly real.
Don’t consider Miller’s style slow for a second. He balances the long periods of stillness so well with harsh, abrupt moments- like the wrestling matches that appear to be shot at a higher frame rate. The sound of bodies colliding after long silent exposition puts you within sweat’s reach of the mat. He makes history cinematic with a marriage of film and photography. He’s a lot like Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Elizabethtown); always making sure we notice the pictures hanging on the walls.
There have been a lot of fighting movies in the last couple years, sort of grittier rebuttals to the Rocky franchise which has become laughable at this point. They’re getting better, and this one raises the standard no less than Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and David O. Russell’s The Fighter did. As those movies said, there are fights in the locker room and there are fights from within. The same is true here. The air between the trio working towards their overlapping goals leads to grave decisions by all parties. Mark being best in the world vs. Dave’s support of family vs. du Pont’s ambitions for America. Each man’s goal narrows their vision until they can’t see what’s right in front of them. And most of all, du Pont’s own vision gets distorted by his unlimited resources in his little world of Foxcatcher Farm. Can our most precious ambitions cloud our sense of reality? Cloud the definitions of right from wrong? Sane and insane? What about America itself? Films in this genre make it very clear that the real fights take place outside the ring. In this case, it’s in the fog.