Foxcatcher is a perfect film for January in that it is depressing, but a fact of life. That’s a little harsh maybe. After all, it contains a trio of brilliant central performances, a superbly subtle screenplay, and understated but assured direction from the director of Moneyball and Capote, Bennett Miller. However, as with Capote, Foxcatcher is quite far along the sliding scale towards only-a-critic-would-love-it.
I make the flippant fact-of-life comment purely as a clumsily inadequate way of explaining that the film is based on a horribly sad true story. In 1988, ludicrously wealthy wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carrell) decides he wants to fund and help train the American wrestling team for the Seoul Olympics. He invites Olympic gold medalists Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), and his brother David (Mark Ruffalo) to a specially built facility on the grounds of his estate, along with their fellow team members. But the unusual relationships that develop between John, Mark and David ultimately lead to tragedy.
This is a profoundly upsetting story that nonetheless touches on some important spiritual themes. On one level the film is about stunted male emotion, but most frighteningly it demonstrates how wealth and privilege can lead to a life of self-delusion, paranoia and madness. In one key scene, John explains to Mark how he ultimately discovered his only childhood friend had in fact been paid to be his friend by his mother. Later scenes show John’s handlers discreetly making pay-offs to manage John’s deluded expectations – for example, paying off a wrestling opponent in a friendly contest so that John wins, or a documentary filmmaker who subsequently asks David to state that John is a mentor to him on camera when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.
All of this works extremely well due to the sheer brilliance of the acting from the leads. There are some good supporting bits and pieces too, from Vanessa Redgrave as John’s mother, and Sienna Miller as David’s wife. In fact, on an artistic level there is nothing to criticise in Foxcatcher. As a slow burning psychological drama it is a genuinely compelling piece of work.
However, all of that doesn’t stop it from being really, really depressing.