Steve Carell gives a captivating performance in Foxcatcher. I doubt whether any actor has worn a false nose so well since Robert De Niro’s got pummeled into cauliflower in Raging Bull. That this beak caps off a man who counted ornithology among his interests is a fringe benefit; that the real John E. du Pont also resembled a bird of prey has a downright sinister serendipity. Moreover, John was a scion—with blood as blue as melancholy—and a wrestling coach; and this led him to bring Mark Schultz, a 27-year-old world champion, into his fold.
The film begins in 1987—three years after Mark (Channing Tatum) was awarded his gold medal in Los Angeles. Wherever he is now, it certainly could use that California sun; he grunts out an inspirational speech for a gray assemblage of elementary-school kids who look too tired to yawn. He trains with his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a fellow Olympic gold medalist who is also a wrestling coach at a university. Between the wife, kids, job, and receding hairline, one wouldn’t guess that, in real life, Dave was only a year older than Mark. There’s the suggestion that Mark, affectless and laconic, is developmentally disabled—and that’s off-putting because it plays into stereotypes about wrestlers, and because Mark wrote the book this movie is based on.
Discomfiting as the suggestion is, it seems to be something Mark has in common with John. Their conversation is so spare it could have been written by Hemingway. The wrestler and the wrestling enthusiast are united after Mark receives a call made on behalf of John du Pont—“of the du Pont family.” He’s invited to the chemical heir’s Pennsylvania estate, which is draped in eternal autumn—as if to imply that it’s within John’s dynastic power to prevent the leaves from falling, or any cycle from completing—and invited to join Team Foxcatcher. A sententious patriot, and probably long before it was fashionable (as it would have been then; this is the Reagan era, after all), John wants to train Mark—and Mark wants to win the gold—in the interest of national prestige. John also wants Dave to join, so he too can practice next-door to the dowager du Pont’s thoroughbred ranch. But Dave declines, citing family obligations: an excuse the others can’t much empathize with.