Human Emotions Transcend Wealth in ‘Foxcatcher’

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – In the memorable film “Barton Fink,” the title character is asked to write a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery. If Fink had isolated himself long enough, he might have come up with “Foxcatcher,” demonstrating once again that a true story is much stranger than fiction.

Directed by Bennett Miller (“Capote”), the film is a dreamy nightmare, if that contradiction in terms can be used a descriptive. It is quietly weird, featuring performances from three popular actors – Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo – that stretch them beyond anything else they’ve ever done. The story of one of the wealthiest men in the world, John du Pont (of the du Pont chemical dynasty), as he tries to grasp some kind of identity and acceptance, is proof that no one gets out of their lives without some connection to the very emotions that can uplift or destroy them. The thing that makes you great also has the power to deny you.

The American life for a medal winning Olympic wrestler is not the same as for more high profile and profitable sports. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is one such wrestler, mining for pennies until he gets a mysterious call. It is John du Pont (Steve Carell), who has taken an interest in the sport, and is willing to allow Mark to train at his specially built facility on the du Pont estate.

Steve Carell, Channing Tatum
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and John du Pont (Steve Carell) in ‘Foxcatcher’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The motives of the odd du Pont are unclear, but Mark takes the offer. Soon he realizes that part of his commitment is to get his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to also join the compound. When this becomes difficult, so does the relationship between du Pont and Mark. Even when Dave does join in, the downward spiral has begun, leading to actions that go beyond sporting match-ups.

There is never really an explanation behind the enigmatic du Pont, and Carell portrays him in that mystery. The use and manipulation of his wealth – tied into his attitude – is never brought forward until he finds it necessary to attack others, which is a key to his overall personality. The frostiness that du Pont brings into a room is the practice of generations, and even in his outside pursuits – he is also a published author on the study of birds – he is still a du Pont, and he cannot allow his inherent feelings to overcome that fact.

Carell’s performance is appropriately chilly, but played as one note. There is a hesitation in the portrayal, as if a decision was made early on as to how du Pont – now deceased – would be approached, and no nuance need apply. It is a complete character study for the surface-oriented Carell brand, and although admirable in its risk it needed to go further. Sometimes comic actors have trouble with dramatic roles, in this case there is a fear in Carell’s eyes.

Opposite to that is Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Tatum is portraying his most complex character to date, but he fully understands those complications, even though his motives are also unclear – there is a feeling that vital exposition was cut from the film. Ruffalo is the highlight – using a beard, a receding hairline and a bedrock faith in his family life to embody the peculiar Dave Schulz. His scenes with Tatum, for example, are more Svengali-like than familial, making him the juiciest character in the very narrow story spectrum.

Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Mark is Consoled by Brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in ‘Foxcatcher’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The story is very choppy, as mentioned, and flits from one scene to another without much regard to ambitions or explanations. Timelines are severely shrunk in the telling of the real events, which when the reality is looked up it gives a new meaning to “based on a true story.” There are some things that can’t be manipulated for the purpose of symbolism if dealing with actual happenings. Even if the Lincoln assassination were made into a ballet, Abe wouldn’t have a pas de deux with John Wilkes Booth.

The character study is the thing in this cautionary tale, as du Pont is a King Midas with the inability to touch his own soul, due to his lifelong impression of “family honor.” Anthony Michael Hall has a small role as a dynastic bagman, and his cat-like movements is the “eggshell walk” to keep his cushy gig. Multiple that by billions, and the result is John du Pont.

“Foxcatcher” opens everywhere on November 21st. Featuring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Michael Hall. Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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