John du Pont was the sort of person who seemed destined to end up on the silver screen. The bizarre, outsized and very public (to those who lived in Pennsylvania at the time, at least) end to his life as a free man was the sort of story destined to find its way into the annals of true crime history. Eighteen years later, the story of the filthy rich recluse with an unnatural fixation on amateur wrestling intertwined with the Schultz family that ended in bloodshed has finally made it to the big screen, with biopic specialist Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) working off a script from Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye.
Beginning shortly before the 1988 Olympics and following through that fateful day in 1996, Foxcatcher predominantly follows younger brother Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who along with his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) was a gold medal competitor in Los Angeles in 1984. Working at a wrestling camp with Dave, Mark is contacted by du Pont (Steve Carell), a man with limitless resources who sees his personal legacy tied into the US wrestling team, and soon uproots his life to live and lead a team on du Pont’s compound in Pennsylvania. The tension builds as it soon becomes clear that du Pont’s obsession with the sport and the Schultz brothers is not particularly healthy, and threatens to turn their family upside down.
It is difficult to discuss Foxcatcher without leading with Carell, who has never attempted anything along the lines of what he does here (the closest being his villainous turn in The Way Way Back, which still is not even close to this). Done up with a giant prosthetic nose, ugly teeth and a swollen jaw, Carell’s du Pont is a bird-like monster of a human being, He speaks with a nasally, phlegmy drawl, pausing agonizingly between sentences to allow for that tension to hang in the air. It is not a loud performance on the whole, but it is also not a subtle one. Carell certainly steps out on a limb over a rather large cliff, and for the balance of Foxcatcher, it is difficult to discern whether he will ultimately stumble.
Less ostentatious are the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo, though they are by no means less effective for it. Tatum gets the bulk of the screen time and continues to evolve into a powerful and versatile actor who can star in a film like this and 22 Jump Street in the same year without blinking. His Mark Schultz is a wounded animal with a square jaw (jaws are prominent among all male performers here) and a crippling inferiority complex as he turns to du Pont to fill the father role as he tries to make a life for himself outside his brother’s shadow. As that brother, Ruffalo’s role is no less accomplished; he must toe that line of representing his own sort of father figure to Mark while he is clearly positioned as the greater and more prestigious of the two siblings. Ruffalo’s Dave is a family man, with his “PU KIDS” note scrawled on the back of his hand as he wrestles, and he brings the needed pathos to the relationship that inadvertently pushes Mark toward the waiting arms of du Pont.
Honestly, Tatum and Ruffalo deserve better than what they get here, as Foxcatcher has numerous problems that hold it back from as early as the first act. Carell is at the center of these problems, as his character simply does not work on the screen, and the dominoes of the story fall down around him. He and Miller rely too much on the gaudy prosthetic nose and its striking profile (Carell spends an inordinate and distracting amount of time in profile, even when to do so makes the blocking of the scene and movement of the camera awkward); they want to make du Pont into something predatory, the Eagle as which he so desperately wants to be known, but in practice he is nothing of the sort. Without a strong figure to play off, Tatum’s character suffers for it unjustly, and the lack of belief ripples through the rest of the narrative. Exacerbating this is the film’s languid pacing; those pregnant pauses between nearly every sentence add up quickly into a numbing experience, and the film just takes far too long to get anywhere of note. This is all in service of making du Pont’s character into something to be feared or marvelled about in how odd he is, but he is so odd that it harms the efficacy of his relationship with Mark and how easy the younger brother falls under his spell. It feels like Mark decides to move out to the Foxcatcher compound not because it makes sense in context, but because the story requires it.
There are times the film coalesces into something powerful. Tatum gets a chance to flex his acting muscles in a string of strong sequences at a disastrous tournament that culminates in a harrowing weight cutting montage that is the finest sequence Miller has put to film. Tatum and Ruffalo are always a joy to watch, but they cannot carry the film themselves. They may get the screen time, but the film is so heavily predicated on du Pont that they can only do so much. Miller strips away all the superfluous layers until Foxcatcher is laid bare, but he has dug too deep and left too little behind, only these three men and their lives. Free of external motive and action, the narrative cannot engage and becomes more of an acting exercise than a functional story. Carell is too critical to the story to be so forceful and is too much of a cartoon to provide the necessary emotional through-line for Tatum to follow. As a result, Bennett Miller’s tale is too cold, too distant, too staid and laboriously paced to justify its 135 minutes, and its performances and technical merits can only be enjoyed from a clinical perspective rather than a visceral one. A satisfying chronicle of the true crime story cannot be found, and Foxcatcher finds itself less than the sum of its parts.