Great sports movies are rarely about sport and Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher – one of two US movies in competition for this year’s Palme d’Or – is no exception.
Based on a true story from the 1980s that’s as sad as it is creepy, it tells of Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), both winners of gold medals at the 1984 LA Olympics and now preparing for the ’88 games in Seoul.
A wedge enters the siblings’ relationship when Mark, the younger of the two, more lunkheaded and less charismatic, is fired from his coaching position alongside the brother who raised him. It’s at this point that Mark is approached by eccentric multi-millionaire John DuPont (Steve Carell) to spearhead an all-star wrestling team that will live and train within the expansive grounds of the DuPonts' titular Pennsylvania manor, their every need catered for.
At first, Mark finds a father figure in the socially inept, barely communicative DuPont, and glories in finding himself valued after a lifetime hidden away in Dave’s shadow, slouching, mumbling. The super-rich benefactor, meanwhile, is himself plugging some gaps by at last achieving his own success – the irony being that he’s of course buying it with his family’s money and his elaborate role play of mentoring the US wrestling team only invites further disapproval from his stern mother (Vanessa Redgrave).
Then DuPont manages to buy Dave’s involvement also and the triangle dynamic becomes ever more unstable, with jealousies and humiliations introducing a toxicity that can only lead to disaster.
Directed coolly and classically by Miller ( Capote , Moneyball ), whose only fault is to underline points already made, Foxcatcher is a superior drama about wealth, power, entitlement, fathers and sons, competitive man and the dark side of the American dream.
There is wrestling in it – men grappling to exert their superiority – and Miller films that world with total authority, casting an observant eye over its environments, rituals and paraphernalia. But it’s a backdrop. Foxcatcher is no more a wrestling movie than Moneyball is a baseball movie, or Raging Bull is a boxing movie, or The Hustler a film about pocketing pool balls.
Sure to attract awards attention, perhaps in Cannes and certainly at next year’s Oscars, Foxcatcher boasts trio of terrific performances. Tatum is wounded and vulnerable; Ruffalo’s ursine body language is a thing to behold; and an unrecognisable Carell demands to be watched unblinkingly – still and silent for chunks of the film, he nonetheless squirms anguish, sadness and anger.