Mark Schultz, big, brimming with testosterone and an intensity matched only by his physique, is about to lose it. We can pray that he won’t, but the brawny wrestler walks a fine line.
We meet the Olympic freestyle wrestler, played by Channing Tatum, as he prepares to speak at a middle school assembly. He’s actually filling in for his brother, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who also won gold at the 1984 Olympics. The brothers grew up in foster homes, each the only friend the other ever had or needed. It becomes clear, though, that Mark has always felt insidiously overshadowed by his older brother, now a full-time wrestling coach with wife and kids.
Mark wrestles with his feelings for his brother, but in one of the most gut-wrenching, saddest scenes of the year, Tatum’s character eventually loses it.
Foxcatcher, a sports drama that won Bennett Miller the 2014 Cannes Best Director Award, is full of doomed, delicate balances.
Much of the film, which is based on a true story, plays out like a slightly off-kilter sports film with a pinch of Cold War-era patriotism. Mark Schultz is discovered by multi-millionaire philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carell), who invites him to train with the official wrestling team of Foxcatcher, the Du Pont family ranch. With rousing, patriotic speeches and constant reinforcement to Mark’s self-confidence, John helps him forget fraternal rivalry, enabling him to perform well at the 1987 World Championships. John, however, is scarred by a childhood of neglect, especially from his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). An unstable psychology festers within the lonely, somewhat spoiled man.
Tatum’s performance as Mark is one of his most reticent yet. With minimal dialogue, Tatum manages to portray a character of complicated internal substance through a superb command of body language. He transitions well between the precise fast-paced skin-to-skin contact on the mats and the awkward movement of an athlete too large and active for daily life. Foxcatcher gives Tatum’s former-model physique ample opportunity to run the gamut of beastly to beautiful.
Tatum also exhibits mastery of facial expression. At critical, psychological moments in the film, his expressions are so intense that his character’s childish vulnerability just barely stays under wraps, noticeable to us but not to the people around him. Several times in Foxcatcher, Mark glares at his brother with unguarded hate. Tatum reminds us of the wrestler’s searing inner activity with a minimum of dialogue.
After a spat with Mark and in somewhat of an act of betrayal, John eventually invites Dave, whom Mark anything but welcomes, to work as a wrestling coach at Foxcatcher. Dave’s patient, sunny nature doesn’t mesh well with the increasingly unstable relationship between John and Mark. The ranch atmosphere becomes increasingly volatile as the trio work to prepare Mark for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Sports begin to take a backseat to the psychological interplay that unfolds. The transition between genres is seamless.
As John, Carell portrays an unabashedly horrible man. With his languid posture and something-smells facial expression, Carell creates a disreputable spoiled kid deserving of every ounce of pity and dislike he gets. As the older Schultz brother, Ruffalo’s lighthearted, open delivery makes his character a heaven-sent relief from all the intensity. Dave’s brotherly love is warm and transparent, making him a foil to both his brother and John and possibly the only force capable of rescuing both from self-destruction.
Foxcatcher’s fight scenes themselves portray wrestling as a complicated, artful sport. Choreographed by former NCAA Division 1 champion Jesse Jantzen, the wrestlers often grapple in relative silence, going through series of movements that suggest coordination rather than conflict. Without relying on the use of slow motion, the film draws attention to the intricacies of the sport of wrestling, suggesting that it is anything but a “low sport,” as John’s mother calls it. As a sports film, Foxcatcher celebrates the human body through an unexpectedly intimate, quiet portrayal of a high-contact activity.
It also uses wrestling as a grounds for sorting out a more psychological form of conflict. It turns conflicts of the mind to conflicts of the body, turning the intangible into full-on contact. It gives its characters the power to sort out their issues on the mats. Its an exciting, satisfying way to watch it be done.
In Foxcatcher, the sports and psychological drama genres come together to produce an intense, gripping story with characters whose inner workings never fail to transcend understanding. At the same time, the Schultzs and John are so unforgivingly human that their ambivalence towards each other and themselves seems oddly familiar. The film is more than an interpretation of the events that took place at Foxcatcher ranch in 1996 – it is a harrowing reminder that neither the human mind nor body are ever complete tamed.