Wins on Points: Du Pont wrestling drama Foxcatcher engages but doesn't pin

Wins on Points: Du Pont wrestling drama Foxcatcher engages but doesn't pin
Sony Classics

Wins on Points: Du Pont wrestling drama Foxcatcher engages but doesn't pin

Directed by Bennett Miller.
Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman.
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller and Anthony Michael Hall.
Opens Friday, December 19, at the Tivoli.

The du Pont family made its fortune selling gunpowder during the War of 1812, and soldiered on to invent everything ever worn by a cop: Kevlar, nylon, polyester, synthetic rubber. If you've cooked on Teflon pans, that money's theirs, too. That means you've supported American patriotism, or at least heir John Eleuthère du Pont's version of it, funded and fought on wrestling mats at 10 world championships and three Olympics. (Naturally, the du Pont labs also developed the Lycra spandex for his athlete's singlets.)

John (played here by a ghostly Steve Carell) spent $600,000 of his $200 million fortune to build a wrestling gym at Foxcatcher, his family estate and the name of director Bennett Miller's stone-faced jock drama. He was a lousy wrestler himself: over 50, scrawny, and with a permanent wedgie. What he was really trying to buy was respect from his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), from the Olympic committee, and from his locker room of grapplers who dutifully agreed to call him a role model and a coach in exchange for great facilities, free room and board, the occasional ride on du Pont's private plane, and, of course, Foxcatcher-logo sweatshirts that come to look like the brand of a true believer.

Everyone has a price. Which makes Foxcatcher a natural follow-up to Miller's Moneyball, another sports film about dollars, cents, and cynicism. The cheapest is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a 1984 gold medalist who, thanks to Olympic eligibility rules, is so broke he's gotta train for 1988 Seoul on a diet of dry ramen. Schultz's older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) — a smaller but smarter wrestler who can convincingly flip Mark like a pancake — costs more. When Mark warns du Pont, "You can't buy Dave," the millionaire grunts, "Huh?" A man without a price may as well be a black hole — a theory that du Pont has never confirmed firsthand.

As much as du Pont sneers at his mother's show ponies (in a tantrum, he blurts, "Horses are stupid!"), he, too, sees his investment as simply buying good muscles, housing them in stables, and collecting trophies. And, one fears, dragging his wrestlers behind the barn to be shot when they've served their purpose — thanks to his family's war fund, he owns not just an army of pistols, but a tank.

Carell is unrecognizable as the lonely tyrant. His eyes seem smaller and more sunken, his nose has doubled to an imperious beak, and his skin is marred with wrinkles and liver spots. He walks in small, mincing steps and speaks in a gray monotone — the voice of a man who's never had to yell to get what he wants. To the world, du Pont looks like a mouse. To himself, he's much greater. Telling Mark he no longer has to call him Mr. du Pont, he warmly suggests, "Eagle, or Golden Eagle."

Meanwhile, Mark looks like a brute, but turns out to be as fragile as a little boy. Tatum furrows his brow, juts his jaw, and lumbers around like a playground bully with yardsticks in his pants — he can do a backflip on command, but boy, are his legs sore. He and du Pont look like an odd couple, but their codependence makes sense. They both need someone to believe in their greatness, and for a while they prop each other up. The price — no privacy, little free will, late nights pretending to let du Pont pin him during drunken practices — doesn't seem like much to Mark until, suddenly, it dawns on him that it is. Sometimes Tatum punches his own head as if Mark was trying to turn on his brain. It's an intelligent depiction of a very dumb man, who is no less tragic for being unable to articulate his hopes and hurts.

Foxcatcher feels like that, too, as though Miller has banged the facts around but can't shake out what story he wants to tell. He's mashed the timeline and rejiggered the events so much that the film is several strides away from the truth, which would be more pardonable if he'd done it to shape a theme. The pieces of something important are here — there's ego and greed and desperation, the essential ingredients of the American tragedy — but none of it fits together. Instead, Foxcatcher is merely a very, very good character study with acting so fine that it's frustrating it's not in the service of a real, emotional wallop.

At least — like the Foxcatcher estate itself — it's a handsome veneer. Miller must not have had the budget to reproduce the million-piece mosaic du Pont commissioned of himself triumphing in a fictitious pentathlon, but the movie has the look and swagger of a champion. (It did win Miller the Best Director award at Cannes.) But despite its strengths, Foxcatcher ultimately leans too much on those looks, hunting for resonance in endless close-ups of bronze foxes, stuffed foxes, porcelain foxes frozen in mid-flight, yet leaving its message loose enough that it's easy to escape its hold.

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