When I saw “Foxcatcher,” I was unaware that it was being marketed as a true crime story. Before it was half over, however, I guessed that something extreme was going to happen. Otherwise, this apparently aimless tale of a billionaire’s sponsorship of an Olympic wrestler would never have secured funding. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what sort of crime would bring the movie to its startling conclusion, the twist caught me off-guard.
John du Pont (Steve Carell) is a withered mama’s boy who pays amateur wrestlers to live on his estate and work out in his gym if they accept him as coach, mentor, and father figure. He latches onto champion wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), using him to give his gym the legitimacy needed to lure some of the nation’s top athletes into joining his cult. Tensions rise between Schultz and du Pont, which are exacerbated by du Pont’s manipulation of Mark’s older brother and mentor Dave (Mark Ruffalo.)
Director Bennett Miller is less interested in telling true crime stories than in exploring the ways in which money can be used to create a utopia of self-delusion for the decaying weaklings of a fallen aristocracy. Du Pont can wheel around his property in a tank with a mounted machine gun, pretending to be a war hero, or distinguish himself in a wrestling match by having a servant pay his competitor to take a fall. And Mark is bound to him by a feeling of class inferiority and the lure of financial security.
Carell’s narrow-shouldered droop recalls Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, a comparison seconded by Miller’s decision to emphasize the ornithologist in du Pont, who, despite his fraudulent pretentions to athleticism in later life, wrote many valuable books and papers on birds, particularly those native to the Philippines. Tatum blocks off all routes between his brain and central nervous system as Mark, the clueless meathead who allows himself to be exploited and abused by his psychopathic sponsor. Ruffalo, who was brilliant in “Begin Again,” is simply adequate as brother Dave. It was mean of the academy to nominate him and Carell for their performances while passing over Tatum, who is the heart and soul of the movie.
Tatum’s Mark is every worker who has been exploited by a thieving manufacturer, every meathead who has been conned by phony patriots into fighting an immoral war, every trusting child whose innocence has been betrayed by creepy and pathetic authority figures, and every human being who is afraid to leave the prison of subservience out of fear that he is not good enough to make it on his own. “Foxcatcher” may be a true crime story, but the crime that makes a commercial property out of its event is only one factor in the universal criminality of an antiquated class system than objectifies and dehumanizes the exploitable poor.