A bizarre true crime story becomes fodder for a minimalist exploration of a particularly American form of masculinity in "Foxcatcher," the new movie from filmmaker Bennett Miller.
It's a shining example of the ways a first-rate director and cast can elevate lurid material to a heightened artistic place where it evokes more than a forgettable voyeuristic thrill. Every frame has been assembled with utmost care and attention, from the intensity of the performances in the abundant silences through the nightmarish passing clouds and the looming grandiloquent décor of the estate setting.
The picture follows gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) as he's unexpectedly recruited by du Pont family heir John (Steve Carell) to train as part of the newly-formed Team Foxcatcher on the grounds of John's sprawling Pennsylvania compound in the mid-1980s.
As depicted here, du Pont is an inscrutable man; his family made its fortune from black powder but he describes himself as "an ornithologist and conchologist." He certainly lacks any credentials when it comes to wrestling, but Miller along with screenwriters Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye plainly show that the sport has little to do with the movie's real subject: the complicated and exceedingly strange bonds between men.
The shifting dynamic between du Pont, Mark and Mark's brother and fellow wrestler Dave (Mark Ruffalo) anchors that exploration. Du Pont and Dave wage a cold war over the right to serve as Mark's primary father figure that careens toward tragedy, while the latter, portrayed as a sculpted Adonis with the soul of a wounded child, tries to climb his own way out of an abyss of despair and dissatisfaction.
The story is told through the physicality emphasized by Miller and his actors, incorporating the wrestling metaphor into every aspect of this world. Carell, virtually unrecognizable behind a prosthetic nose and ample makeup, draws in his neck and shoulders and speaks in a stiff, uncomfortable way that suggests a struggle to contain considerable inner strife. Tatum's Mark is a hulking mass prone to fits of shocking aggression. Ruffalo disappears behind Dave, the most relatable and distinctly human of the trio, radiating empathy in the tender ways he interacts with his brother.
Dave is more of an outsider, a disruptive force, but John and Mark have bought into the distinctly American conflation of manliness with aggressive leadership, subscribing to the mythos that the true measure of a man can only be found in the way he commands the respect and attention of others.
The movie is mysterious and a bit hard to keep in your grasp. It defies easy description and offers little in the way of conventional rewards for viewers.
But as an expressionistic rumination on a society rotting under the weight of delusional, media-fed and pop culturally-promulgated notions of who we are and what we should be, with terrific acting across the board, it certainly leaves its mark.
If you go:
Directed by Bennett Miller | Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo | Rated R