A foggy misery blankets the entirety of Foxcatcher, the new film from Bennett Miller, purveyor of alternative Americana (see: Capote, Moneyball). This is a sports movie, but not in the sense that, say, Rocky is. Wrestling is the context, not the subject; Olympic gold medalists Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) are the ostensible subjects, but millionaire “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” John du Pont is the grim center of the film and the reason for its being made in the first place. Even without knowing the story of the Schultz brothers, the sense of foreboding in all of the film's marketing materials should clue you in to the vision of an American dream gone sour that Miller is here to present.
In 1985, brothers Mark and Dave Schultz both won Olympic gold at the quadriennal games in Los Angeles, CA. Foxcatcher begins some short time after their twin victory in a most unexpected of places. Dave has settled down with wife and kids while younger brother Mark continues to train tirelessly for future games, taking breaks for the odd inspirational speech at a local elementary school every now and then. If Olympic athletes are supposed to be the closest thing one's country gets to a national superhero, the gloominess of Mark's existence certainly doesn't reflect it. His gold medal—representative of America's greatness, as he tells a hardly-rapt audience of 8-year-olds—is the only thing in his life (or in this film, for that matter) that seems to shine.
Channing Tatum brings his impressive physical presence to a role that demands nothing short of a human behemoth. In an early scene, we watch Mark training with a sandbag in one brisk and uninterrupted long shot that warns us up front that Mark is strong enough to murder us by rolling over in his sleep. Mark is not a murderer though, and certainly neither is Dave (played with heart by Mark Ruffalo, who easily gives the performance with the most depth in the whole film), who in a subsequent scene practices with Mark on the matt in a wordless show of brotherly tension and affection.
A shot of excitement interrupts Mark in the middle of his dreary middle-American life when he receives summons from the estate of John du Pont. The du Pont dynasty has amassed enough wealth through the generations to establish Foxcatcher Farm, the family's own picaresque microcosm of the American mythos in the woodlands of Pennsylvania. Mark's escort eagerly points out Valley Forge to his visit on their helicopter ride down to the immaculately-manicured front lawn of du Pont's manor, a stately white manse beckoning to its new visitor with promises of wealth and glory to come. John du Pont wants to take Mark in under his wing and help him train to become the best in the world; du Pont has visions of grandeur, both for himself and for his country, and a second Olympic gold for Mark at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 would handily make turn those visions into realities.
Mark agrees to move up to Pennsylvania to live and train at Foxcatcher farm, though Dave declines to take du Pont up on a similar offer extended in his direction. Under du Pont's frighteningly watchful eye (and nose), Mark begins to buy in to the rotten version of the American dream his new master is peddling. In one of the film's more unforgettable scenes, du Pont initiates Mark into the ways of the cocaine addict while gala-bound in a helicopter, all the while trying to coach Mark through a panegyric of tongue-tying flattery to be delivered in du Pont's honor at dinner. If these are supposed to be our American superheroes—an Olympic medalist and a millionaire philanthropist (/philatelist/ornithologist..)—their behavior here paints them as anything but.
Besides the obvious deconstruction of the American dream taking place here, Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman have masculinity on the mind, and therein lies the key to the whole film. Mark and du Pont represent masculinity at its physical and moral extremities (the latter man frequently transgressing acceptable standards of manliness), with Dave hovering in the background as the closest thing the film has to a moral center, a man who has learned to humble himself for the benefit of his family. In the wake of the aforementioned helicopter scene, the film shifts gears slightly to delve into the psyche of its hook-nosed antagonist. Du Pont enlists Mark to help him achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a great wrestler himself, a dream perennially thwarted by his prim-and-proper mother (Vanessa Redgrave), a horse-loving matriarch who deems wrestling too “low” to be considered proper sport.
All of du Pont's ideas of masculinity are undermined by his juvenile mommy issues and the strange homoerotic subtext to his relationship with Mark (du Pont isn't married, and while the film never ventures too deep down this particular rabbit hole, the groundwork is there for anyone who wants to humor the idea). There's nothing at all manly about treating your mother like an antique to be tossed in the garbage with her horse racing trophies, nor about seducing a vulnerable, borderline-depressed athlete with drugs and money; nor is manliness to be found in the submachine guns and military-grade tanks du Pont continues to amass for his personal collection.
At a pivotal moment in the film, Mark loses the first round of a three-round qualifying match for the Olympic games. Dave has since been brought on as an assistant coach for his brother and the rest of the American wrestling team, and the pressure of failing in front of his big brother evidently gets to Mark. Following the first match, Mark retreats to his hotel room and proceeds to bring ruin upon himself. After a shocking scene of self-harm (Mark punches himself in the face repeatedly before smashing his head into a mirror until the whole thing shatters), Mark gouges himself on a cart full of room-service delicacies. Dave shows up minutes before the second match is set to begin and finds Mark pitifully sprawled on the floor, bleeding from his forehead and well over his weight class.
Wasting no time, Dave pushes his brother to get himself down to the right weight in the thirty or so minutes before his scheduled match. There's forced vomiting and intense exercise biking aplenty, and at the end of the ordeal—which Dave tries his best to keep du Pont from finding out about—the brothers are victorious. In one of the most striking shots from the entire film, the audience is forced to look on in queasy dismay at an extreme long shot of the weighing room where Mark, disrobed and spiritually emasculated, steps up to the scale while Dave raises two arms in the air in a triumph the audience can't partake of themselves. Mark wins his matches and moves on to the Olympics, but the price of his victory renders it all meaningless.
Du Pont is none too pleased at this Pyrrhic victory, and the final 30 minutes of the film comprise a long march to the inevitable 1988 Olympic defeat and the shocking, brutal murder it seemed to precipitate after du Pont and the Schultz brothers returned home. There is certainly a case to be made that Miller lets his movies drag on longer than they need to, although it is hard to find any segment of this final act that warrants removal. Here, all of the film's strongest assets are put to their greatest test and deliver. Director of photography Greig Fraser's use of eery lighting and impeccably-framed long shots render the world of Foxcatcher Farm something akin to a Civil War mural, paintings for a tragic new chapter in American history. The sound design is never as terrifying as when shots are fired from the barrel du Pont's gun. And Mark Ruffalo, given mere seconds to act, sells the film as Dave in front of his family to the jealousy and insecurity of a man who viewed Dave's virility as a threat to his own.