Does extreme privilege point, like an arrow, to a sort of rot within the true-blue American spirit? Putting criminal insanity aside for a moment, the answer's a qualified, sorrowful yes in director Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," a true-crime drama hailed in many quarters as a modern classic since it debuted six months ago at the Cannes Film Festival.
Sometimes you encounter a movie begging to be revisited a decade from now, simply to see which one of you has changed more in the interim. "Foxcatcher" is one of those movies. It's meticulous, fastidiously controlled and a tiny bit enervated. I've seen it twice; it's successful enough in what it's attempting to merit at least one viewing. But even after two, you may struggle with what's not there, and should be, or could be.
I'm looking at "Foxcatcher" from the perspective of having loved Miller's two previous narrative features, "Capote" and "Moneyball," films of smaller scope and narrower, more easily achieved goals. Both were keen-eyed American-success-story biopics with a difference, the former (about Truman Capote) a winner/loser, the latter (Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane) a winner with sabermetrics. "Foxcatcher" casts a wider net.
There are times when director Miller can't seem to fight his way out from under it. But the filmmaker's struggle — largely, it appears, in the editing phase — to give shape to this story makes for a compelling riddle with a clear narrative answer but plenty of unanswered ancillary questions.
The facts are pretty rich. In 1996, on the grounds of his sprawling Foxcatcher Farm estate in Pennsylvania, wrestling enthusiast and chemical company heir John du Pont shot and killed Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz. Schultz's brother, Mark, also spent time living on the du Pont estate and was the first of the brothers to enter the rarefied orbit of their cryptic, increasingly threatening benefactor.
"Foxcatcher" strips down the real-life events for parts and goes its own way, as all movies must, turning the story into a study of aspirations, goals and the competitive spirit, and how the wealthiest convicted murderer in U.S. history came to be exactly that.
Photographed in ashen tones by the Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser, "Foxcatcher" makes much of du Pont's interest in American history, his proximity to Valley Forge and his belief that a triumphant U.S. Olympic wrestling team is his way to reclaim his country's greatness. Early in the film, a portrait of George Washington is seen on the drab apartment wall of Mark Schultz. Clearly these two, du Pont and Schultz, the rich man and the relatively poor man, are spiritually fated to be mated.
When we first see Channing Tatum's Mark, he's speaking before a few dozen grade school students on the subject of his Olympic wrestling accomplishments. He gets $20 for the gig. Life is small and blinkered. When the call comes from Foxcatcher to set up a meeting about du Pont's lavish training facility, it's fate, messing with Mark for what appears to be the better.
Steve Carell portrays du Pont, and it's a canny performance, a cinch come Oscar nomination time, existing largely on pauses in between lines. "I want to see this country soar again," he says quietly, almost diffidently, to Mark in an early scene. Working with a substantial prosthetic nose, miserable-looking yellow teeth and a backward-tilted head suggesting an unbalancing sense of wealth, Carell does little to tip his interpretive hand in these initial sequences.
In contrast to Carell and Tatum, Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz plays the script's one truly happy man, happy in his family life (Sienna Miller portrays his wife, Nancy), content in his coaching, protective of his tense, socially phobic brother.
The script underlines its ideas with an increasingly heavy pen as "Foxcatcher" follows these three.
In du Pont, Mark finds the apparently benevolent father figure he never had. In Mark, du Pont finds a malleable conduit for his dream of wrestling glory. Fancying himself a competitive wrestler, du Pont competes at one point in an over-50 match, rigged to give du Pont the win.
The film acknowledges a certain, tactful degree of du Pont's drug use, his personality disorders and bizarre behavior, all documented. Plenty more is elided or left out, especially to do with du Pont's sexually predatory nature.
The screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman focuses intently on the central triangle, to the exclusion of any outside world. The results are all of a piece, yet there are times when the accumulation of atmospheric ingredients — the desaturated color palette, the low, scary hum of the musical score — gets to be a bit much and indicates what's coming long before it comes. The best passages are far better and more subtle.
Director Miller is a wizard at establishing mood and interpersonal communication nonverbally. He doesn't rush things. When Tatum and Ruffalo wrestle early in "Foxcatcher," the brotherly relationship is established entirely through body language — the way these guys use their bodies.
Carell, too, tells us everything we need to know about du Pont's closet-y anguish (though he was married, briefly, to a woman) through his hunched, awkward physicality. In one scene, du Pont is surrounded by his wrestling proteges, and they're all drinking, and the chants begin: "John! John! John!" It's clearly the greatest moment of this man's life.
Miller spent months editing "Foxcatcher," and I suspect some of the casualties include Vanessa Redgrave as du Pont's imperious mother (she's down to a couple of brief scenes) and a more extensive array of du Pont's eccentricities.
The racist, crotch-groping, gun-crazy du Pont — all on the record, as recounted by many different colleagues and witnesses — is boiled down to a vaguely sinister specimen waving a select handful of red flags. Miller favors calm long-distance shots at key junctures, so that the behavior on view — du Pont whacking a clipboard out of a subordinate's hand, for example, or being tackled by police after the worst has happened — appears to be the doings of a rare species of bird, captured through field glasses.
Such moments are just right. Elsewhere "Foxcatcher" seems underpopulated. Real-life characters are downplayed or eliminated for dramatic (and legal) purposes, to mixed results. (The theory that du Pont killed Schultz because of Schultz's friendship with another wrestler, Valentin Jordanov Dimitro, isn't addressed here.)
At its core, "Foxcatcher" grapples, bluntly, with the subjects of class and money, and what some people do when, to quote a line from "Psycho," they can't buy off their own unhappiness. I'm in the minority in admiring the film less than Miller's previous successes, but as du Pont himself likely never believed: It's a free country.
"Foxcatcher" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some drug use and a scene of violence)
Running time: 2:14