“What does he get out of all of this?” the bewildered wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) asks early on in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher when he learns from his brother Mark (Channing Tatum) that blue-blood multi-millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) is investing a fortune in training facilities for US wrestlers.
It is a question that the film itself struggles to answer. Foxcatcher is brilliantly acted and extremely well crafted in a wintry, slow burning way but has an emptiness at its core. Its problem is that Du Pont himself is an inscrutable figure whose behaviour is utterly unfathomable.
Foxcatcher is the antithesis of the Rocky-style sports movie with a triumphalist narrative and "The Eye Of The Tiger" blaring away on the soundtrack. It opens in disconcerting fashion, more Brideshead Revisited than Big Daddy or Giant Haystacks, with evocative black and white home movie footage of fox hunts on the Du Pont estate. This is accompanied by mournful music. Although it unfolds over several years, the film seems to be set in a permanent winter, with leaves or snow on the ground and no sunshine.
Mark Schultz is first shown living in small town America in the mid 1980s, eking out an existence in a tiny apartment, training in a decrepit gym and giving lectures to sceptical school kids about how he won his gold medal at the 1984 Seoul Olympics.
Director Miller’s style is deliberately downbeat. Colours are desaturated. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. There is a wonderful early scene in which Mark and his brother Dave (a fellow gold medal winner) spar, grappling together like big bears. As the brothers practice their moves in slow motion, we sense the affection and intimacy between them. Then Mark head butts Dave, bloodying his nose, and they begin to fight in earnest. Dave is happily married, to Nancy (Sienna Miller) and has a family, but Mark is on his own. That is why Mark is responsive when he receives a call out of the blue from Du Pont inviting him to visit the Foxcatcher farm.
Baftas 2015 nominees
Baftas 2015 nominees
1/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Rosamund Pike plays over-achieving Ivy League graduate Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and is nominated for leading actress
2/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Michael Keaton (left) with Edward Norton in existential comedy Birdman - Keaton is up for leading actor
3/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Julianne Moore receives a devastating diagnosis as linguistics professor Alice Howland in Still Alice - she has been nominated for leading actress
4/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Benedict Cumberbatch is up for leading actor for his role as code-breaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
5/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Reese Witherspoon has earned a Baftas leading actress nod for her adventurous role in Wild
6/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Jake Gyllenhaal in plays a creepy journalist in Nightcrawler and is up leading actor
7/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Amy Adams is nominated for leading actress for her role alongside Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
8/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Eddie Redmayne is nominated for leading actor for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything
9/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Felicity Jones plays Stephen Hawking's wife Jane Wilde in The Theory of Everything and is up for leading actress
10/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Ralph Fiennes has a leading actor Baftas nod for Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel
11/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Patricia Arquette has a Bafta supporting actress nomination for her performance in Boyhood
12/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
J.K. Simmons stars as an abusive tutor alongside Miles Teller in Whiplash
Sony Pictures Classics
13/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Keira Knightley is nominated for supporting actress for her role in The Imitation Game
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Imitation Game/downloaded from Papicselect
14/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Ethan Hawke has a supporting actor nod for his performance in Richard Linklater's Boyhood.
15/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Emma Stone is up for supporting actress for playing Sam in Birdman
16/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Mark Ruffalo is up for supporting actor for his performance alongside Channing Tatum in wrestling drama Foxcatcher
17/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Rene Russo is nominated for supporting actress for her role as Nina Romina in Nightcrawler
Chuck Zlotnick/© 2014 Open Road Films/The Hollywood Archive
18/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton star in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman - Norton is up for supporting actor
19/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Imelda Staunton (centre) with Liz White and Nia Gwynne in Pride - Staunton is up for supporting actress at the Baftas
20/20 Baftas 2015 nominees
Steve Carell is nominated for supporting actor for his role as John du Pont in Foxcatcher
The filmmakers are alert to the class divide between the wrestler and his patron. Schultz wears jeans and trainers. Du Pont lives in old world splendour in a huge country house.
The film shows its two lead actors in a new light. Channing Tatum is generally cast as the action hero/romantic lead (White House Down, Dear John) or the goofy jock while Carrell is the comedian who excels at playing the harassed everyman. Here, both are in far more intense groove.
Tatum’s tongue-tied, slightly dim-witted wrestler here isn’t so far removed from the undercover cop he played played in 21 and 22 Jump Street. The difference here is that he is in earnest. Tatum captures Mark’s mix of innocence, aggression and, latterly, his self-loathing and self-pity too. He is also completely credible as an Olympic-level wrestler.
There is a comic element to Carrell’s Du Pont. He likes his friends to call him ‘golden eagle’ and his behaviour is often eccentric in the extreme. “I am an ornithologist. More importantly, I am a patriot,” he declares at one stage. Thanks to his immense wealth, he has a sense of privilege and entitlement and yet is terrified of his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave), a tweedy matriarch who dismisses wrestling as “a low sport.”
Du Pont cuts an absurd figure when he himself takes up wrestling in the over 50s category or when he fusses around Mark at competitions, fanning him with a towel. His sexual attraction to the wrestlers is apparent - although the real Mark Schultz has complained that the film misrepresents his relationship with the tycoon. Carrell’s performance is effective because it is so creepy and ambiguous. His huge aquiline nose gives him a patrician air. Sometimes, he seems to be speaking sense but then he will suddenly switch subjects, for example talking about his love of wrestling one moment and his passion for birdwatching and stamp collecting the next. He wants to be a mentor and a leader and yet we are always aware, as he seems to be too, that the wrestlers only listen to him because of his immense wealth.
Arguably, the best performance of all comes from Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz, the decent, loyal family man who tries to look out for his little brother but ends up caught in Du Pont’s web as a result. Ruffalo has bulked up to play Schultz and is barely recognisable beneath his beard. His Dave is as grounded and pragmatic as Du Pont is flighty and eccentric. In one scene, we see him help his brother, who has just been on a self-destructive food binge, lose 12lb in 90 minutes in order to make the weight for his next bout.
This is a film that we all know is going to end badly. Miller’s sombre storytelling style doesn’t leave room for doubt on that score. Sporting triumphs here are experienced only fleetingly. One of the fascinations of Foxcatcher is that it is a “sports movie” (if it can be described as such) that is far more concerned with the events behind the scenes than it is with the World Championships or Olympics. Miller is probing away at the strange mix of motivations that drive both the wrestlers and their hangers-on and cheerleaders, Du Pont foremost among them.
In the end, Du Pont’s personality defeats the filmmakers. He is simply too enigmatic a figure for them to unpick. We are never sure how seriously to take him. If he is suffering from mental illness, he is as much the victim as the wrestlers he preys on. If he isn’t, his behaviour is all the more deplorable. Is Bennett using him to satirise the old American ruling and moneyed class, corrupt, violent and with a distorted sense of patriotism? Is this a twisted love story? Is it the case study of a poor little rich boy who has Norman Bates-like issues with his mother? It simply isn’t clear and that is why the film feels so frustrating in spite of the consummate craftsmanship with which it has been made.