Foxcatcher’s fearless stars score all the points in a takedown of naked narcissism and searing sociopathy.

By Christos Tsiolkas.

Foxcatcher’s charm wrestling

An almost unrecognisable Steve Carell (right) with Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher..
An almost unrecognisable Steve Carell (right) with Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher..

At the beginning of Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, we are introduced to Mark Schultz, a former Olympic wrestling champion, who is preparing, reluctantly, to give a talk to primary school children about American sporting pride. Mark is played by Channing Tatum, and these opening scenes are initially disconcerting, almost shocking. Tatum, one of the most physically graceful and sexually confident of contemporary Hollywood actors, is flabby and ill at ease in his body and in his clothes, and he moves sluggishly; even looking out to a sea of children’s faces he appears suspicious and paranoid. We understand immediately that Mark’s apparent lethargy masks disappointment and rage, that he has not adjusted to a life outside competition on the world stage.

Tatum has made a brave choice to play a man lacking any emotional intelligence, who seems devoid of curiosity for the world outside himself. Such naked narcissism runs the risk of completely alienating an audience. But Tatum has become a highly accomplished actor: his cheerfulness and amiability have carried such lightweight dross as 21 Jump Street and its sequel, and his playing of a stripper in Magic Mike was good natured and honest – his enthusiasm and glee in his body and his dancing were infectious and allowed the film to sidestep camp clichés or prurient sensationalism. There is no point in Foxcatcher that we warm to Mark, but we can’t take our eyes off him.

Mark is approached by a representative of John du Pont, the heir to an immense fortune. Du Pont (Steve Carell) wants Mark and Mark’s brother, Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo), to come live on his sprawling estate and head Team Foxcatcher. Du Pont’s fantasy is to train his own private wrestling team, with the goal of them winning a gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It is clear that for du Pont, Team Foxcatcher allows him to live out adolescent fantasies of omnipotence, to be surrounded by attractive young men who can be both friends and playmates for him. Mark is seduced by du Pont’s great wealth but Dave, who is married and has a family, is initially reluctant.

“You can’t buy Dave,” Mark confidently asserts to du Pont. Eventually, however, both brothers become leading members of the team, and as du Pont and Mark’s relationship becomes more dependent, and as the power dynamics between the two narcissists – one who has all the money in the world but no skill or physical talent, and the other who has only his body as collateral – become more intense and more toxic, the unstable and ludicrous foundations to the rich man’s fantasy begin to crack. The rage that Mark Schultz must contain is a fury that du Pont shares.

I suspect that Bennett Miller is the wrong director for this material. On the evidence of Capote, Moneyball and now with this film, he is clearly sympathetic and generous with actors, and that is no small skill. He is at his best in exploring the complexities of friendship within the competitive arenas of sport or the literary world. But with Foxcatcher he and scriptwriter Dan Futterman want to push the story to also be an allegory of American exceptionalism, of how wealth and power has corrupted the principles of American democracy.

Miller’s attempts at symbolism are simplistic and unoriginal, sometimes gratingly so, as when the film cuts to paintings of the Founding Fathers to underscore the venality of du Pont’s patriotism. Even though based on true events, the story is so preposterous, the characters so dysfunctional, that the film requires a director attune to the blackly comic possibilities of the narrative. Miller utilises classically austere long shots and stately composed scenes that distance us from both Mark and du Pont. It is as if the crazy obsessions of both men are so alien to him, he has chosen to view them only from the outside.

There is a greater problem at work here than just Miller’s inability to integrate his allegorical aspirations within the story he is telling. The relationship between Mark and du Pont seems so idiosyncratically perverse that we remain unconvinced that the story can illuminate contemporary abuses of American power.

Du Pont clearly is meant to stand in for the rapacious folly of the “1 per centers”, and Mark Schultz’s seduction can be read as representing the corrosive temptations that underline competition, but for that interpretation to really take flight and be credible, we need to see how temptation has also affected Dave Schultz. Ruffalo’s character remains untouched by the hermetic relationship between du Pont and his brother that is the heart of the film. Dave’s concern for his sibling is achingly clear in Ruffalo’s performance, but beyond that loyalty there is not much else to the character. We never do see that he acquiesces to du Pont’s request, we never believe that he has been truly “bought”, and that sentimentalising of Dave weakens the film.

Sienna Miller plays Nancy, Dave’s wife, and her character too seems unaffected and unchanged by their proximity to great wealth and its attractions. She is wasted in this film. Maybe if the director and Futterman had suggested that her and Dave’s aspirations to be perfect aspirational parents mirrored the tainted desires of both du Pont and Mark, if their marriage had echoes of that perversity and competition, the film might have worked better as satire. But Bennett Miller’s distaste for excess and wealth is coldly moralistic, as if any indulgence in the pleasures of money would annul his sympathy for Dave and Nancy. It undermines their characters by making them superfluous to his satirical purpose. Mark and du Pont, too, are never allowed any joy; there is a scene of cocaine abandonment between them on du Pont’s verandah that is so ill conceived, so bereft of humour or wildness that I nearly lost trust in the performers. I think that’s why he’s the wrong choice as a director: he doesn’t get these characters.

Thankfully, Tatum and Carell do, as does Vanessa Redgrave in a small but pivotal cameo as du Pont’s imperious mother. What is instinctively wonderful about Redgrave’s performance is that she remains faithful to Futterman’s stereotypical writing of her as an aloof, damaging rich bitch, but we can see in her eyes that she knows the fear and heartbreak of having given birth to a monster.

Made up with a prosthetic nose that completely alters his features, Carell sheds his comedic everyman persona to deliver a chilling and sustained performance as a sociopath whose privilege fools him into believing he can play God. Mark Schultz, too, is a kind of beast. These two men who have never grown up, who don’t understand what it is to live with not getting what they want, are, of course, representative of a culture of greed.

That’s an easy conclusion and that’s the least interesting aspect of Foxcatcher. What Carell and Tatum convey is that there are hungers and lusts, desires and repressions, that defy simplistic moralising. Bennett Miller and Futterman are scared by their creations, they can’t go in too deep with them. What makes Foxcatcher a film worth seeing is that Tatum and Carell are fearless. They are monsters and they are absolutely riveting.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 24, 2015 as "Charm wrestling".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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