When John du Pont passed away in 2010, the New York Times' article about his death also offered numerous reasons for du Pont’s descent into madness, as chronicled in Bennett Miller’s new film 'Foxcatcher.' According to the Times, du Pont's personality "seemed to grow more erratic after three incidents in the 1980s: an automobile accident that curbed his vigorous life as a sportsman, a brief marriage that failed, and the death of his mother." The paper also details some of du Pont's increasingly outlandish behavior, including an episode at a wrestling competition where he wore "an orange jumpsuit and asked to be introduced as the Dalai Lama."
Of all these twists only one—du Pont's mother's passing—appears in 'Foxcatcher,' where the relationship between mother and son is treated as the singular motivation for everything that happens. John du Pont, played by Steve Carell, was raised into a life of unfathomable wealth and privilege, but also one of loneliness and constant disapproval on the part of his stern mother. No matter what John did, according to 'Foxcatcher,' it wasn't good enough to please Mrs. du Pont. And that feeling that he was a failure in the eyes of this woman gnawed away at him until he snapped.
That 'Foxcatcher' ignores the other possible reasons for du Pont's actions isn't necessarily a issue; the movie is a work of fiction and holds no responsibility to "the whole truth" (if capturing such a tricky abstract concept is even possible in a two hour drama). The problem isn't what 'Foxcatcher' took out, but what it left in, which isn't nearly as interesting. A trio of strong lead performances elevate the material, but not to the level of a gold-medal winner.
Du Pont puts the story in motion with a phone call to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic champion wrestler living in near-destitution. When he's not training with ratty, duct-taped dummies, Mark delivers dour inspirational speeches to elementary school kids for $20 a pop and subsists on a diet of greasy fast food and ramen noodles. This is not the glamorous life of a champion depicted on television coverage of the Olympics. No wonder, then, that Mark is so easily seduced by John du Pont's offer to sponsor his training for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul and to put him up in a luxurious house on his expansive property in rural Pennsylvania. Anyone in Mark's situation would do the same.
Mark moves to the du Pont estate, known as Foxcatcher Farms, and it's quickly made clear—too quickly and too clearly, frankly—that John's interest in wrestling is purely a pretext to prove to his mother that he has skills to rival her own as a horse breeder and trainer. John brings Mark in to create his own "stable"; one of Olympic wrestlers whose achievements might one day bring home medals he can place in the family's hallowed trophy room. As John and Mark grow closer, the former begins to bring the latter along on speaking engagements, and has him wear his Olympic medal during meet-and-greets the way you might parade a prize filly around a track wearing their ribbon and garland of roses.
Mark has his own family issues to deal with; he's lived most of his life in his brother Dave's shadow, another Olympic wrestler who now works as a coach. Dave (Mark Ruffalo, nearly unrecognizable in beard and receding hairline) has helped Mark achieve all of his victories, and by joining Team Foxcatcher, Mark is out to prove he can win without his older, more famous brother. Mark and John's shared feelings of inadequacy initially bond them together. But even before his mother's death, John's actions start to get stranger and stranger. He introduces Mark to cocaine, and after a period of drug use seems to treat him less like a thoroughbred than a slave. (Their relationship strongly resembles the one between Liberace and his "assistant" Scott Thorson in Steven Soderbergh's 'Behind the Candelabra'; an intricate web of wealth, power, friendship, and a desperate need for companionship.)
Eventually, John convinces Dave to join Team Foxcatcher, which further strains his relationship with Mark. That should ratchet up the film's tension, but as John and Mark's friendship sours, so does the movie, which accelerates towards its conclusion rather than fully considering the causes and effects of the tragedy at its center. It doesn't take an expert in the real-life case to know Miller condensed a lot of it; the third act feels rushed and incomplete, and once John commits his heinous crime 'Foxcatcher' ends with frustrating abruptness. Miller never even shows the audience the survivors' reactions to John's decisions. Two brief scenes after du Pont makes his fateful choice, the movie is over.
Before it's over, though, Tatum, Ruffalo, and particularly Carell do deliver excellent, against-type performances. Tatum plays Mark Schultz like he's auditioning for the role of the Hulk in the next 'Avengers'; a brooding, seething mass of muscles and inarticulate rage. Ruffalo (a.k.a. the guy who actually plays the Hulk in the next 'Avengers') plays Dave as a more outgoing, gregarious man (who, for reasons that aren't explained, seems to have a totally different accent from his brother). He has a sensitive side, but he's also capable of his own eruptions of violence, and the training sequences between the two Schultzes escalate into brutal physical battles.
Carell's John du Pont looks at first like a stereotypical acting-with-a-capital-A-and-a-big-fake-nose-(now-gimme-an-Oscar) role, but he disappears pretty convincingly into the part, and has several great scenes with Tatum. The best observes John while he tries to explain to Mark how he wants to be introduced at a charity banquet while they're both high on cocaine. ("Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist," he pronounces over and over until it becomes a huge punchline.) Few actors are better than Carell at playing the oblivious center of cringe-inducing awkwardness, a skill he uses repeatedly in 'Foxcatcher'; in one brutally uncomfortable sequence he tries to impress his mother by delivering a pathetic motivational speech to his wrestlers. Halfway through his rambling lecture, she turns around and leaves. It plays like the darkest episode of 'The Office' in history.
A fan might say that Bennett Miller's films bring history to life; 'Capote' featured Philip Seymour Hoffman as the famous author, and 'Moneyball' had Brad Pitt as groundbreaking baseball executive Billy Beane. These movies are certainly great showcases for actors, but they also tend to flatten out the fascinating quirks and peculiarities of history into easily digestible and overly pat narratives. 'Moneyball,' recast an intellectual debate about statistics into a familiar feel-good sports film, and 'Foxcatcher' boils down what was apparently a very complex relationship between three men to a fairly simplistic dynamic with a "Mommy never loved me" motivation. The actors are compelling, but that Times obituary contained even more drama in 700 words than 'Foxcatcher' does in 130 minutes.