Whether or not you remember — or familiarize yourself with — the story of John du Pont before viewing Foxcatcher is almost beside the point. The tension that director Bennett Miller builds into this true-life tale has as much to do with the journey as it does the conclusion.
The story follows the peculiar (at best) relationship between du Pont heir John (Steve Carell) and Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). As we learn, du Pont fancied himself a wrestling aficionado and reached out to Schultz as a benefactor, ultimately recruiting the young man to live and train on his Foxcatcher Farm estate in Pennsylvania. Not long into his stay, though, things start to go awry. Eventually, John uses his wealth to lure Mark’s revered brother and coach, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), onto the grounds, which leads to a tension-filled co-mentorship in the months leading up to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
For a number of reasons, Foxcatcher is one of those magical cinematic perfect storms. Carell, an actor best known for playing a bumbling idiot, turns in a performance so nuanced, creepy, and disarming it will stick with you for days. Tatum, for his efforts, embodies Mark as he moves from tortured brother to tortured athlete to some complicated amalgamation of the two. And then there’s Ruffalo, who makes Dave utterly believable in spite of his superhuman patience.
Still, it’s Miller’s meticulous treatment of a complex story that moves Foxcatcher from good to great. The tension between Mark and Dave, Mark and John, and, ultimately, John and Dave develops slowly and steadily as the film progresses, creating a tautness that bubbles beneath the surface of every single scene. Combined with cinematographer Greig Fraser’s stark, expansive shots of the farm and unnervingly claustrophobic cuts of men in the ring and Mychael Danna’s chilling score, it makes for one of the most troubling, tightly wound stories told this year.