The saga of John du Pont is one of the more bizarre and tragic stories from the mid-1990s. In Bennett Miller's dark and ominous Foxcatcher, the episode is framed as a true-life Faustian Tale. But the story is almost secondary to three outstanding dramatic performances -- two of which are given by men who are better known for their work in other genres.
Channing Tatum stars as Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz. When we first meet him, he's already reached elite status by winning a gold medal. But the achievement hasn't allowed him to escape the shadow of his older brother, Dave, also a gold medalist. The younger Schultz wants more. He wants to be the best. His past prize also doesn't pay the bills. After training sessions, he's eating ramen noodles. All that changes, however, with a phone call from du Pont (Steve Carell) who offers to pay him and set him up in a first-class training facility on his Pennsylvania estate.
Like Schultz, the multi-millionaire du Pont is a man in a seemingly enviable position who nevertheless wants something greater. He has family issues of his own, as he strives to please his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave). He hopes he can make her proud by leading a team of wrestlers to gold in Seoul in 1988. But du Pont doesn't just want to be a benefactor. Even though he's little more than an extremely wealthy fan, with only a rudimentary knowledge of the sport, he wants to be seen as a coach and mentor to his wrestlers. And so, when Dave arrives to guide his brother, jealousy develops. Dave is everything du Pont wishes he could be, but isn't. He's a great teacher, a great leader. This leads to tension that slowly builds toward the story's shocking climax as du Pont's demons emerge.
As du Pont, Carell is almost unrecognizable beneath make-up and prosthetics. It's a quietly disturbing performance that will definitely have audiences and critics seeing the comic talent in a new light. Action/comedy star Tatum also has a breakthrough turn as the intense and driven young Schultz who grows increasingly uncomfortable under du Pont's subjugation. As a past Academy Award nominee, Mark Ruffalo's exceptional portrayal of the older Schultz comes as less of a surprise. But that doesn't make it any less notable or transformative. The normally wiry Ruffalo packed on a lot of muscle to play Dave Schultz. Here, he looks less like his Bruce Banner alter ego, and more like the Hulk himself. All three performances are a study in the art of subtly. This is a movie that derives drama from silent moments. In many key scenes, it's the words that aren't said that speak volumes.
Foxcatcher features themes of control and manipulation, and wrestling functions as an apt metaphor. It's that most primal of sports – one in which you literally bend another person to your will. Ultimately though, the movie is a story about two people who reach for greatness, only to experience a great fall. And it's also the tale of a great man caught in the middle. The saddest part is that it actually happened.