“Foxcatcher,” with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, is billed as a “crime drama,” but the term doesn’t quite fit. In a crime drama, the fascination is in seeing how the motivation for the crime unfolds, how the crime itself is conducted, and how its aftermath works out. In “Foxcatcher,” the crime is almost senseless; the criminal is clearly somewhat deranged, is something of an alcoholic and a drug abuser, and plays with guns to boot. You can see the horror coming; the question is who, exactly, will be the victim.
The great strength of the movie is in the acting. Every character is utterly believable. Steve Carell is nothing like his usual hapless characters. As John E. du Pont, heir to a piece of one of the country’s great hereditary fortunes, he is full of icy determination but oddly detached even while he yearns for some human relationship. He wears a very convincing prosthetic nose and cocks his head back to look down on mere mortals, but connects with none of them.
Tatum and Ruffalo play Mark and David Schultz, who both won Olympic gold medals in wrestling in 1984. Tatum is a gifted athlete who is not so good as a coach at the training center du Pont establishes on the family estate. His brother Dave comes in to take over the coaching, alienating his brother and setting up a conflict with du Pont. The brothers attempt to help du Pont carry out his dreams of athletic glory, but are foiled by the multimillionaire’s long slide into madness.
Ruffalo actually wrestled in high school, and he and Tatum got enough training to make their performances look very realistic (although the finer points of wrestling are far beyond me). The episode in which Mark has to lose 12 pounds in 90 minutes before a weigh-in is actually true. (Solution: sweat.)
The story is based on real events at the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania in the 1980s and 1990s, but the filmmakers take certain liberties to make the movie work better. In the film, du Pont is driven by his hatred for his mother, who disdained wrestling as a “low” sport, far beneath her own love of horses. The story is meant to be a psychological thriller as du Pont rebels against the limitations of his privileged life. In reality, it appears that du Pont simply went nuts one winter’s day and shot someone close to him.
The film is well done and has generated Oscar buzz for the lead actors. But the characters played by Carell and Tatum are so unsympathetic that it is hard to imagine audiences identifying very strongly with the movie. It is a breakthrough of sorts for Carell, but who wants to be known for playing a deranged rich guy? In the old days, the filmmakers would have changed the story so the victim lives and rehabilitates the shooter, but in the new age of verisimilitude, we are left with a rather depressing movie.