A bleak, mid-wintery gloom suffuses “Foxcatcher,” a dramatized version of the lurid real-life murder of champion wrestler Dave Schultz at the hands of the late John E. du Pont in 1996. As refracted through the chilly, superbly controlled lens of director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”), the otherwise tawdry tale of ambition, self-deception and mental illness becomes an unsettling allegory of violence and love at their most ritualized and repressed.
“Foxcatcher” exerts a mesmerizing pull, not only because it affords the chance to witness three fine actors working at the height of their powers, but also because it so steadfastly resists the urge to clutter up empty space with the filigree of gratuitous imagery and chatter. It may not be conventionally fun to watch, but it has the courage of its convictions, allowing the story to remain as it was: bizarre, bewildering, twisted and terribly sad. It’s a haunting, deeply troubling movie, as ill at ease and unresolved as the curious relationship at its ice-cold center.
That relationship wasn’t between John du Pont (Steve Carell) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), but between du Pont and Schultz’s younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum). As “Foxcatcher” opens, Mark has gone from being an Olympic-gold-medal-winning wrestler to speaking at high school assemblies at $20 a pop, living hand-to-mouth and working out with his far more stable brother. As portrayed by Tatum and Ruffalo, the brothers have the stooped, muscle-bound shuffle of lifelong athletes, as well as a bearlike, instinctive intimacy. Their warmups, stretches and practice bouts — each an improvised but highly structured pas de deux — project equal parts affection and brute, thinly veiled aggression and resentment. During one such encounter, it doesn’t take long for Mark to draw blood. For him, it’s clear: The stakes are always just a bit higher.
Isolated, shut-down and self-punishing, Mark cuts a forlorn figure who, during the late 1980s, when much of “Foxcatcher” transpires, has failed to cash in on Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.” Du Pont — who lives with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) on an estate known as Foxcatcher and who is hoping to put together an all-star wrestling team to take to the Olympics — reaches out to Mark, flying him to Pennsylvania to see the farm and the top-flight training facility du Pont has in mind.
Soon the younger man is living there as protege and playmate to an aristocratic oddball supported by a family fortune generated by war profiteering. At the same time, the film suggests, du Pont has a deep longing for companionship, intimacy and approval. But when du Pont makes a play for the more disciplined and gifted Dave, he finds that this brother isn’t nearly as susceptible or needy. While his mother pooh-poohs wrestling as a “low sport” (compared with her preferred pastime of fox hunting), du Pont finds in Dave his own maddeningly elusive human quarry.
Understandably, Carell — under a prosthetic nose, fake teeth, an imperiously uplifted chin and a halting, adenoidal dialect — is getting much of the attention. And indeed, Carell’s portrayal represents a breakthrough for someone more associated with comedy and winsome drama. But what makes the film so spellbinding is its ensemble, anchored by Ruffalo and Tatum. The latter’s acting combines graceful, full-body physical performance with swirling interior dynamics of fine-tuned sensitivity.
Things go from upper-crust eccentric to downright weird in “Foxcatcher,” especially when du Pont’s clenched-up impulses finally break free. (No one in the history of cinema has made doing cocaine with a millionaire in his private helicopter look like such a drag.) Still, even at its most sordidly suggestive, the movie always returns to each character’s personal maelstrom of loyalty, competition, loneliness and grief.
Working with a script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, Miller directs “Foxcatcher” with lots of white space, filling it with silences and big, empty backdrops that capture du Pont’s abstracted, rarefied life and, in the cosmic scheme of things, the puniness of his endeavor. He continually tries to connect his ambitions for the wrestlers with the American Dream, urging the team to be heroes in citizenship as well as on the mat, and connecting their purpose to our revolutionary forefathers. (“I want to see this country soar again,” he says.) If Miller presents that as a self- valorizing stretch, viewers may bristle just as much at his choice to make “Foxcatcher” a parable of Cold War-era late capitalism. Here is a cautionary tale of the collision between moneyed impunity and simple-folk integrity.
If you really want to get meta about it, “Foxcatcher” is at its most fascinatingly subtextual not as a Bennett Miller movie but as a Megan Ellison movie. Ellison, who produced the film, is herself an heir to a great fortune: Her father is Oracle Corp. chairman Larry Ellison. For the past few years, she has assembled her own team of champions, producing movies by such auteurs as Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and the Coen brothers. She has reached the Academy Awards — her own Olympics — no fewer than three times.
Notoriously press-shy, Ellison hasn’t made herself available to talk about the echoes between du Pont's Foxcatcher project and her own far more benevolent enterprise. Still, there’s no doubt that she understands a filmmaking system in which art chases money and vice versa. Unlike so many dilettantes who have gone before her, she has a discerning eye for talent and the kind of material that studios are no longer bankrolling.
One of the most potent moments in “Foxcatcher” occurs when Mark tells du Pont, “You can’t buy Dave.” Ellison knows that the Millers and Tatums and Carells and Ruffalos of the world can be bought — indeed, they must be, in order to work. The difference is that when she’s the one spending, we’re all the richer for it. “Foxcatcher” portrays, with chilly precision, the ruinous snares of privilege, patronage and seductive proximity to talent. Then again, the fact that it even exists represents an improbably redemptive side of its own tarnished coin.
★ ★ ★ ★
R. At area theaters. Contains some drug use and a scene of violence. 134 minutes.