Psychological sports drama Foxcatcher tells the strange-but-true story of John du Pont (Steve Carell), an American millionaire and self-styled wrestling coach, and his fatal relationship with the gold-medal winning Schultz brothers. The film features many scenes of physical grappling, but it’s more concerned with the battle for Mark (Channing Tatum)’s soul between the unhinged Du Pont and good-guy Dave (Mark Ruffalo).
All three leads are excellent, though it is Carell and Tatum who are tipped for Oscars. As the deeply weird Du Pont Steve Carell plays against comic type. With his beaky prosthetic nose and his unblinking stare, he has a dangerous bird-of-prey quality, in keeping with his interest in ornithology and self-given nickname ‘Golden Eagle’. Du Pont is a controlling psychopath who thinks his wealth can buy him anything (he throws a tantrum when a tank is delivered without its machine-gun), including respect and friendship.
In 1987 Du Pont invites Mark to Pennsylvania to become part of his Foxcatcher wrestling team. He wants to build a Soviet-style training camp and bathe in reflected Olympic glory: ‘I am a patriot. I want to see this country soar again.’ The two men have much in common – politics, loneliness and trophy rooms – and at first they hit it off. In one scene Mark cuffs Du Pont’s leg like a chimpanzee wanting to play.
The bulky Tatum brings an ape-like quality to the role, but he is no grunting Neanderthal. When he’s not wrestling, Mark spends much of his time sitting on the side of his bed, staring into space, with a sort of puzzled sadness, as if he knows something is missing, but he can’t quite put his finger on it.
Away from his older brother’s influence and coaching, Mark goes off the rails, snorting the cocaine offered him by Du Pont, drinking and getting blond highlights. His wrestling suffers. So the millionaire re-doubles his efforts to bring over Mark’s gifted brother, Dave, to coach the team in preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, an event which ultimately leads to tragedy.
Foxcatcher concentrates so much on its three protagonists that it feels like there is nobody else in it. The one exception is Vanessa Redgrave’s cameo as Du Pont’s mother. A horsey version of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, she thinks wrestling a ‘low sport’ and shows withering contempt for her son’s feeble attempts to impress her, being more concerned about what to do with his train set: ‘I think we’ll give it to the children’s museum,’ she decides.
Any comedy in the film derives from the Du Pont’s ridiculous self-importance and self-delusion. On one promotional trip he writes a speech for Mark to read out to the assembled dignitaries, which begins: ‘highly respected ornithologist, author, world explorer, philatelist, philanthropist’ and ends ‘I’ve found a father-figure in the golden eagle of America, John du Pont.’ Practising in their helicopter, Mark stumbles over the words, but after a toot of cocaine both men are chanting ‘Ornothologist! Philatelist! Philanthropist!’
Carell is so effective at portraying this creepy weirdo that he brings to mind both George W. Bush (autocue diction, lights on but nobody at home) and Jimmy Saville (shiny gold tracksuit top, abuse of power). Foxcatcher has received great critical acclaim – it certainly lingers in your memory – but it is a film to admire, rather than one to enjoy.