John du Pont/Schultz story: strong acting in “incomplete film experience”

The tragic saga of the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz by John du Pont captivated the American public when it happened in 1996. The sordid tale, brought to the screen in Foxcatcher, would seem to have all the ingredients for a gripping cinematic adaptation: the juxtaposition of the wealth and privilege of the du Ponts with the workaday existence of blue-collar athletes; the thrills of competition on the Olympic level and the feverish atmosphere of intense training; and of course, three really juicy acting roles in du Pont, Schultz, and his younger brother, Mark.

Let’s start with those performances, because all three are remarkable. Steve Carell, who has made a career playing genial average Joes, is virtually unrecognizable as the self-indulgent and disturbed John du Pont. With transformative (though occasionally distracting) make-up and similarly altered vocal patterns and physical carriage, Carell feels almost other worldly as the man of leisure turned aspiring wrestling coach. From the outset, the viewer senses that this man is more than a bit off.

Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz and Channing Tatum as Mark are much-changed as well. Both actors are usually graceful, even lithe performers. Here, they have bulked up to become plausible as life-long wrestlers: muscular, hulking. And their powerful physical presence reflects the brothers’ stolid lack of social skills. These are men who relate to the world mostly through their bodies.

The three are drawn together by their shared fixation on wrestling. Mark and Dave, both gold medal winners in the 1984 Olympics, have quickly disappeared from the public spotlight. Meanwhile, du Pont has created a world-class wrestling facility at his family estate, Foxcatcher. He convinces Mark to come there to train for a repeat bid in Seoul in 1988. The two isolated men form a strange bond that is strained when brother Dave shows up. The shifting tensions of this triangle form the heart of the film.

We know the outcome of this tripartite drama, of course, but director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) nevertheless creates a foreboding atmosphere, aided by composer Rob Simonsen’s eerie score. Miller shoots the film with a muted palette, full of autumnal colors and moods; and he uses a lot of medium and long shots that create emotional distance between the viewer and these opaque characters.

And that’s the ultimate problem with Foxcatcher. The director, and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, seems to accept the premise that all three of these characters’ inner lives are unknowable. That may be true in the real biography behind this story, but it makes for an incomplete film experience. We know the facts of the case, but we want to understand why people behave the way they do, even if it is just postulating on the part of the filmmakers.

Without any directorial insight, Foxcatcher is reduced to a chilly, glossy dramatization of a sad, all-too-American story. Although the performances are worthy, we are left far short of victory by pin; this film feels more like a forfeit.

*** out of *****

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.