Review: Haunting ‘Foxcatcher’ Hunts Down the Depths of the American Dream [NYFF]

By November 14, 2014
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[This is a re-post of our review from the New York Film Festival. Foxcatcher is in limited release now.]

The Du Pont family name is a trusted one – in fact, you can probably picture the rounded red and white logo of the DuPont Company right now, a multi-national chemical and health care corporation that can trace its roots back to gunpowder manufacturing in the early part of the nineteenth century – a perception that has endured, particularly in America, for hundreds of years. The Du Ponts are wealthy, to be sure, and they’re the kind of family often associated with heady terms like “scion” or “captain of industry” or “leader.” They’re also kind of bonkers. (Weird fact, per Wikipedia: “The usual spelling of the family name is du Pont when quoting an individual’s full name and Du Pont when speaking of the family as a whole.” Meanwhile, the DuPont Company is commonly referred to as just “DuPont,” which makes things still more confusing.)

The Du Ponts may have made their name and their fortune through chemicals, but various passions have kept them in the public eye: for one thing, the Du Ponts have a long relationship with horse breeding, racing, and training. And, yes, foxcatching. It’s not important to know this going into Bennett Miller’s fact-based tale, Foxcatcher, and the director even lays out the obvious foxcatching obsession thanks to some early archival footage that plays over the film’s opening credits, but understanding the Du Pont family obsession with wealth, power, and plain old hunting helps unpack a haunting true story.

In 1984, a pair of brothers won a matching pair of gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. Both wrestlers, Mark won his medal in the 82 kg category, while his older brother, Dave, won his gold in the 74 kg division. After the Schultzes won gold, their lives continued, well, pretty much as is, with both training for the next big competition. Winning the highest honor of their sport didn’t really change their lives in any large way, and that’s where Miller’s film opens: the Schultzes, still wrestling in a dingy college gym, pushing forward to the next competition. The top of the mountain had not yet been reached for either of them, though by all accounts, they could have both hung up their singlets with pride.

FOXCATCHER

It’s obvious from the get-go that Mark (Channing Tatum) feels consistently out of place, and although Dave (Mark Ruffalo) is a deeply caring individual who all but raised his younger brother, he’s found a measure of success that Mark can’t quite match. A family man, Dave is training and coaching, and Mark clearly feels like second fiddle – even if it’s never Dave’s intention to make him feel that way. It can’t be helped.

When Mark receives a mystery phone call (from Anthony Michael Hall, of all people), telling him that a “Mr. du Pont” wants to meet him, he’s initially cagey. Naturally shy and reserved, it’s not the sort of thing that happens to Mark, and that such a call comes only for him (not Dave) seems to enthrall him an unexpected way. Mr. du Pont ends up being John Eleuthere du Pont (Steve Carell, in a haunting and transformative performance), heir to the Du Pont fortune and an awkward duck who dreams of making his own way in the world. Disinterested in horses – at one point, a drunk du Pont yells, “horses are stupid!” – John has decided to make his name in a different way: by sponsoring and coaching a world class wrestling team that will bring Olympic glory back to America. He’s a patriot. He’s a sponsor. He’s deranged.

Mark accepts du Pont’s offer, eager to be out on his own, and while du Pont makes his interest in Dave known early, he initially seems unperturbed that he doesn’t come with Mark (well, at least at first). John is strange, to be sure, but for a time, Mark seems to pass off his eccentricities as a product of a different lifestyle – the alternative, that he’s just crazy, is far harder and scarier to comprehend – but du Pont’s forceful, weird personality soon starts impacting the very fabric of Mark’s being. In between demanding to be called “Eagle, or Golden Eagle,” playacting at being a coach, and introducing Mark to cocaine, du Pont infiltrates his life, taking over the exalted mentor space long reserved for Dave.

FOXCATCHER

The characters of Foxcatcher – DuPont and, to some extent, both Schultz brothers – are defined by their personal hunts, their searches, their quests. The crux of Foxcatcher, however, hangs on who is doing the hunting and who is doing the running. Hauntingly crafted, melodic, and often terrifying, Miller’s film unfolds with grace and time to spare, and by the time it’s clear who is going to be a victim and who will be left behind, it’s far too late.

Although Miller is telling a true (and well-publicized) story with Foxcatcher, the tension stays high and palpable throughout the feature, thanks to generous pacing and a compulsion to building relationships and situations. The film’s grasp on later time periods is oddly loose, however, and audiences may be surprised to learn how much time passed (in the real world) during the events of the film’s third act. Still, what sets Foxcatcher a cut above – career best performances, wicked tension, compelling character development – ensure that the film is a new classic that will chill audiences for many years to come.

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Kate Erbland
Kate Erbland is a staff writer for movie news and reviews at GeekNation. Her work can also be found at Film School Rejects, ScreenCrush, Vanity Fair, The Dissolve, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, amNewYork, New York Daily News, Dame Magazine, Mental Floss, Film.com, MSN Movies, and Boxoffice Magazine. She lives in New York City with two cats, two turtles, one boyfriend, and a frightening number of sensible canvas totes.