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Foxcatcher does fruitful work in the land of sport

“Bro, do you even wrestle?”
  • “Bro, do you even wrestle?”

For much of its running time, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher was among my favorite films this year. Like Miller’s last movie, Moneyball, it does fruitful work in the field of sport, where lofty notions of excellence and heroism can believably grapple with brutish realities involving money and ego. Also like Moneyball, it is based on actual events. And it was only at the end — when those actual events provided a dramatic conclusion to the proceedings — that I was brought up short. I mean, I get it: it made sense to include it. But I would have been happier if things had ended just a few minutes earlier. It would have meant less drama, but also, perhaps, more meaning.

Foxcatcher involves Olympic wrestling, but of course, the real struggle goes on outside the ring. In one corner, you have Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), a gold medalist at the ’84 Olympics, now happily married and working as a coach. In the opposing corner, you have the DuPonts; specifically, John DuPont (Steve Carrell), a stupidly rich man who has decided to become a wrestling sponsor in an effort to restore America’s standing on the world stage. The prize in their contest: Dave’s younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum). Mark also won gold in ’84, but he hasn’t found any kind of satisfaction (or life), and spends his time training to meet the Russians in Seoul. (The opening scene — Tatum vs. a wrestling dummy in an otherwise empty gym — sets the tone as well as any this year.) DuPont wants to sponsor Mark and get in on the glory. But he wants more than that, too.

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The film presents DuPont as a man-child crushed by the success of his forebears. Their vast wealth and vaster self-love — Mark is given a video upon his arrival that details the DuPont history and concludes with the text, “America’s Wealthiest Family!” — have left him both isolated and paralyzed. (At one point, he admits that his only friend growing up was the son of the family’s chauffeur, and it turned out that he got paid for his kindness.) What hope is there for such a man? All he has are his hobbies and his disappointed mother. Getting involved in wrestling is his way of rebelling (Mom calls it a “low” sport), of planting his flag outside the established borders of the DuPont empire. But, of course, he has no real idea of how to achieve anything, unless it involves paying someone else to achieve it for him.

Carrell will likely get the kudos, in part because of his altered appearance, and in part because of his mannered presentation of an odd fellow who is out of place in the world. (He even walks like he isn’t sure quite how to go about it.) But it’s Tatum’s film; his portrayal of an overshadowed, under-esteemed younger brother remains affecting throughout. For his part, director Miller keeps his symbols clear without being crass and his mood restrained even as events spiral out of control.

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