There’s an old joke about how poor people are crazy but the rich are merely eccentric. Bennett Miller’s based-on-a-true-story Foxcatcher vividly illustrates that joke. After all, how many poor people are allowed to own an armored personnel carrier with a .50 caliber machine gun, openly snort cocaine, wave revolvers around, and make documentaries about their pretend achievements, and not be called crazy? John du Pont was the scion of an industrial dynasty with an 800-acre estate and bank vaults full of money. Because of that, he is allowed to follow every controlling desire, even though anybody can see it will end in tragedy. The tautly acted but dramatically deficient Foxcatcher is the story of how a pair of brothers from humble means were pulled into du Pont’s orbit of pathology by the promise of greatness and kept there by the lure of money.
One of du Pont’s obsessions was wrestling, which the film follows with the attentive eye of a documentary. He lavished millions of dollars on programs, setting up a training camp with the hopes of taking Team Foxcatcher to the Olympics. At the start of the film, du Pont (an enthusiastically creepy Steve Carell under a slathering of prosthetics) recruits Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who won the gold at Atlanta in 1984 but has been rudderless ever since. Ensconced on the estate and given everything he needs to lead wrestlers to the next Olympics, the previously dirt-broke Mark feels he’s been given a second chance. His initial happiness undermined by a desire to impress, Mark tries to recruit his older brother David (Mark Ruffalo), also a medal-winning wrestler and the man who essentially raised them. Meanwhile, the stiff and friendless du Pont is always there, showing up at Mark’s door late at night, observing Mark like the birds he loves to watch, puffing himself up with grandiloquent statements about America and honor. Du Pont might seem insane, but Mark nevertheless wants to please him. After all, he’s paying the bills.
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script skimps on the specifics of du Pont’s life leading up to the scandalous crime it ultimately imploded in. The focus is on the triangular tensions ricocheting between du Pont and the Schultz brothers. This kind of dynamic is typical for Miller, whose films like Capote and Moneyball have reveled in diagramming these kind of nerve-filled competitive collaborations and friendships. As before, Miller shows a deft ability to understand the greater framework of his characters’ endeavors. Particularly in its early scenes, Foxcatcher is almost like an athletic procedural. One fantastic segment has Mark and David sparring silently in an empty gym. Miller shoots it clean and mostly without cuts, the two men slipping and looping around each other like dance partners, with David’s patient tutelage and Mark’s loving but frustrated younger-brother insecurity building to an eruption.
As doggedly as the film studies it, however, wrestling becomes a problem. Unlike Capote and Moneyball, Miller isn’t working here with an intrinsically dramatic background. Wrestling is ultimately just wrestling, and Foxcatcher doesn’t manage to convince us otherwise. The film also curiously skirts most of the lurid details of du Pont’s eccentric life in order to focus on the relationships. Given the performances, that’s not initially a bad choice. Tatum’s grimacing darkness plays superbly off Carell’s stealthy and curdled resentments and Ruffalo’s eager-to-please charm. It’s almost as though the three of them were in separate films: Tatum as a dark drama’s stolid brooder, Carell the pathetic loser of a thousand comedies (you could see his du Pont as a variation on The Office’s Michael Scott, with all his wheedling and delusions of greatness), and Ruffalo the indie-film dramedy get-along guy.
But Miller’s distance from the subject leaves Foxcatcher a scrupulous and cool-handed actors’ exercise that nearly manages to mask how little there is there. The cast does great work, but they do it in circles over and again; particularly Tatum’s blank wall of physicality. By the time the film reaches its violent conclusion, we are almost back at the beginning, knowing almost as little about the characters as when we started. It’s not for the filmmakers to invent rationales for why real events occurred the way they did. But when a film this character-centric can’t present at least some greater understanding of the people involved, it feels like a wasted effort.