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'Foxcatcher' Is a Compelling and Claustrophobic Film About the Strange Fraternity of Wrestling

Sony Pictures Classics

This really happened—or something did; and that gets us into the riddle of how a “true story” movie meets or ignores human truth. First, I’m going to assume you know as little about wrestling as I do—or as this film, Foxcatcher, cares to.

Wrestler Dave Schultz was a year older than his brother Mark, but far more worldly. In 1983, at the Kiev World Championships, Dave won a gold medal. The next year, at the Los Angeles Olympics, both brothers won gold, at 74 and 82 kg. And then in Budapest, at the 1985 World Championships, Mark won another gold. This must have been tough and difficult, requiring intense discipline. Surely in all this training, the teamwork of the brothers was essential.

Even so, Mark Schultz chose, in advance of the Seoul Olympics of 1988, to reside and train at the “Foxcatcher” farm in rural Pennsylvania, under the patronage of millionaire John Eleuthere du Pont. Du Pont was of the famous family who had made their fortune in gunpowder and chemicals. He was highly educated, a brilliant polymath, and very odd. (In 1983, he had had a marriage that was annulled after 90 days.) Dave would arrive later, and in 1996, on the Foxcatcher property, du Pont shot and killed him, without apparent reason or provocation.

I think this much is established fact. But now we have to consider the movie in which du Pont is Steve Carell, Dave is Mark Ruffalo, and Mark is Channing Tatum. As written and directed by Bennett Miller (he made Capote and Money Ball), the Schultz bothers are fond fellow-athletes, but Mark is fearful of being overshadowed by Dave. This possibility is beautifully conveyed by Ruffalo and Tatum. They both move like wrestlers, or in a way that convinces me that they are wrestlers. Dave has the smile, the warmth, and the sympathy that Mark Ruffalo would have a hard time losing—and I don’t want him to try. As for Tatum, he is able to suggest a physique of great strength and a mind of far less substance. He looks intimidating but childlike, a super-hero yet very vulnerable. Dave is married with children. Mark never notices a woman. 

It’s a measure of Mark’s confusion, I think, that he drops his older brother for a man of enormous wealth, and Aspergers-like authority, a “coach” who knows very little about wrestling but who wants the guys he’s training to call him Eagle, to flatter his prowess, and damn near worship him. It’s what some du Ponts were accustomed to, I daresay, and John has a forbidding mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who scorns just about everything her son does. So he’s a wreck, too, and even with a net worth of $250 million, he soaks up grief from Mom. (If you investigate, you discover that du Pont only opened Foxcatcher as a wrestling academy after his mother had died.)

The strange bond between du Pont and Mark Schultz is the core of an impressive, disturbing, and very well-acted film that never escapes being cold and claustrophobic. Carell delivers a startling performance, even if it seems a little more fit for Oscar than derived from life. That’s not meant as criticism. It’s simply that du Pont is so bizarre, it’s difficult to measure him as a person, or to see why Mark permits his own state of semi-slavery. This is where the film seems not just shy about the facts, but determined to avoid them. When du Pont insists that Mark wrestle with him, and Mark goes gently in the contest, so many questions need to be asked, yet the film never cares to explore them, just as it does not get into the large financial reasons why Mark and Dave (and the wrestling authorities) might have gone along with du Pont’s wishes. In time, as if to rebuke Mark, du Pont employs Dave as a coach at Foxcatcher. That’s an intriguing dramatic gesture, and it may have happened that way. But then you have to recall that du Pont shot Dave eight years later, when Dave was still employed at Foxcatcher and living there with his family. I’m not sure that Mark had been near the place in years.

The movie suggests that du Pont had demoralized Mark, introduced him to cocaine, ruined his training regime, and broken his brittle spirit. In which case, why did Dave stay at Foxcatcher so long afterwards with his family? Nancy Schultz is played by Sienna Miller, a talented actress who was Tippi Hedren in The Girl, with Toby Jones playing Hitchcock and on stage in the London revival of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. I looked forward to seeing her, but as it turns out she does and says very little in the film, except smile at people and scream with distress when Dave is murdered. Quite reasonably, Nancy Schultz sued du Pont for wrongful death after he was convicted of murder, and won a large settlement. She deserved it. But we deserve more candor and detail about what really happened.

It’s understandable that Bennett Miller should have been fascinated by the du Pont-Schultz case and wanted to make a film from it. But sometimes the defense of “based on a true story” evades both the real facts and their fictional potential. Mark Schultz and Nancy are still alive—du Pont died in prison in 2010, at the age of 72. He left 80 percent of his estate to a Bulgarian wrestler; that will has been challenged and upheld. This is a compelling film, as far as it goes, and worth seeing for the actors. The script is by E. Max Frye (the electric Something Wild) and Dan Futterman, both of whom have proven themselves in the past. But the content of Foxcatcher is frustratingly muffled. There’s a new book on the case, by Mark Schultz and David Thomas, but it is notably absent from the film’s credits. I don’t think the picture adds much to study of the real case—it may leave experts laughing. And I fear its caution stops short of the great film that it might have been, and which some charitable critics are claiming is there.