In January 1996, tragic news from philanthropist John Eleuthère du Pont’s multimillion pound estate in Pennsylvania shocked the world. Eighteen years later, acclaimed director Bennett Miller has adapted the true story for the big screen, focussing on events leading up to the incident and du Pont’s dysfunctional friendship with wrestling champion Mark Schultz. Despite being a winner in his specialism, Mark (Channing Tatum) appears destined to be in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who also won gold at the 1984 Olympic games. Mark is approached by the eccentric du Pont (Steve Carrell) who invites him to live and train at his lavish wrestling academy, and to join Team Foxcatcher. An unnerving atmosphere looms over this biographical drama, the ominous tension heightened by colossal acting performances.
The narrative explores the creepy, controlling persona of du Pont and how he manipulates the people around him. The pace of the build up is at times too slow, a lot of the preamble in the opening third covering Mark Schultz’s yearning to be noticed and to gain credibility in his own right, without the presence of his brother. When Mark meets du Pont initially, despite being isolated from his family, it is a positive change and he continues to prosper professionally. However, when his relationship with du Pont takes a sour turn, leading him to loneliness and illegal substances, their conflict produces the film’s most gripping moments. As the plot develops, Dave Schultz’s involvement adds to the dark dynamic and masculine ideals and ambitions cause character relationships to fracture further.
Amidst Greig Fraser’s colour drained cinematography, Bennett Miller directs subtly and almost from a distance, giving the actors and their portrayals room to simmer gently before a boiling point finale. Known for his light-hearted comedy roles, Steve Carell warps mentally and physically into John du Pont. With the help of make-up and a prosthetic hook nose, he is nearly unrecognisable and this is only the beginning of the transformative performance that has everyone talking. His dialogue is delivered in a chilling tone and his actions are never obvious. Tatum also ups his game enormously for his most sinister role to date, as does Ruffalo, presenting the Schultz’s as close siblings, in and away from the squared circle, but with competitiveness deep down, niggling away at their brotherly pact.
Sadly in the run-up to the release, Mark Schultz has spoken out against the film and its apparent historical inaccuracies, verbally attacking director Bennett Miller on social media. I believe that there is always room for artistic licence when bringing real life events to cinema and whether it is factually correct or not, it is undoubtedly a powerful thought-provoking film. Miller again proves himself as a filmmaker capable of getting the very best out actors in roles they wouldn’t generally be cast in and tells the story intelligently and effectively. ‘Foxcatcher’ is never an easy watch but an essential one, and a main-eventer in this year’s awards season bout.