I'm a little envious of anyone who might see Foxcatcher without knowing anything about the events surrounding millionaire John du Pont in 1996. I thought it was fairly common knowledge, but in the event that it's not, I won't reveal how Foxcatcher ends, even if it's almost immaterial to the bulk of the film's story, which unfolds across 1987 and 1988.
John du Pont (Steve Carell) was a scion of the Du Ponts, the family that founded the DuPont Chemical Company. (The inconsistent spellings of the name are intentional.) Living alone with his icy mother (Vanessa Redgrave) on a sprawling estate near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania – Foxcatcher Farm – du Pont at some point turned his attentions toward competitive wrestling, with a particular interest in Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who both won gold medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics. Foxcatcher focuses on the time when Mark Schultz lived on du Pont's property and headed up the du Pont-funded wrestling team, with dreams of more Olympic gold in 1988.
The story is mostly told from Mark's point of view, which isn't to say that he's in any way heroic. In fact, as Tatum portrays him, he's gruff, standoffish, and quick to anger. (He's a marked contrast from Dave, whom Ruffalo plays as the sweetest guy in the world.) While one might question anchoring a movie with such an unlikable protagonist, I think Miller and Tatum made the right choice in depicting the character this way. Otherwise, his willingness to move out to this isolated estate, on the orders of an obviously whacked-out millionaire, would be hard to swallow. But the movie suggests a parallel between Mark Schultz and John du Pont: both are obsessive loners with no friends, who live in the shadow of their relatives, and who are permanently warped by their dreams of greatness. In short, they were kind of made for each other.
It would be easy for Foxcatcher to suggest that du Pont's interest in Mark Schultz was homoerotic at its core – the aging bachelor sure liked watching his protege wrestle. But Miller implies nothing, letting us come to our own conclusions about that. What's clear, however, is du Pont's sense of ownership in Schultz: the film is really sort of a love triangle between the millionaire and the two brothers.
Carell's take on du Pont is very interesting. Much has been made of the actor's makeup job, in particular the enormous schnoz he donned for the role. (Carell insists that du Pont's nose was even larger than the one the actor wears in the movie.) For the first few minutes, that nose distracts, but I soon found it helpful not only in helping Carell disappear into the character, but also in alienating us from du Pont himself. The idea is that, no matter how hard he tried to make friends and be loved, du Pont had an inherent social awkwardness – frankly, a creepiness – that drove everyone away. In fact, whereas the facts have been clear about the real du Pont suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Carell's du Pont seems to have only been driven crazy by a lifetime of being alone and unloved. He's pitiful, more than anything else: the ultimate poor little rich boy.
I don't mean to knock the film or Carell's performance, both of which I think are great, but this take goes against our understanding of du Pont's actual condition, or what led him to do what he did in 1996. (In fact the film jumps to its climax without acknowledging a whopping eight year time gap; you'd be forgiven for thinking that we're still in 1988 at the end.) It seems that Miller and his writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman found it more interesting to look at du Pont's illness as the inevitable result of all that wealth and seclusion, and that his schizophrenia wouldn't make for interesting drama. Perhaps they're right, perhaps not.
Some may find Foxcatcher too slow and cold to enjoy. Indeed, there are long stretches in which not much happens, and the dialogue is sparse at best. But I think it's a fascinating peek into two weird, cloistered worlds – that of competitive wrestling and that of the ultra-rich. It is, above all, a profoundly lonely film.