Plenty has already been written about Foxcatcher, I’m partial to Noel Murray’s review for The Dissolve. The facts are that on January 26, 1996, John E. du Pont, a multimillionaire heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, shot and killed U.S. gold medal winning wrestler Dave Schultz on the grounds of his Pennsylvania estate where du Pont had built a world class training facility at his Foxcatcher Farm for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team. Schultz as the team’s coach. If you haven’t heard this story before, it’s not entirely surprising, the story broke just four months after the O.J. Simpson verdict.
While the Simpson trial was easily the most notorious athlete-related criminal case in the 1990’s, the Schultz tragedy may have been the decade’s most haunting–if relatively unknown. Du Pont never confessed to a motive, the police could never establish one. If the story itself instills a pervasive feeling of uneasiness to those who remember it, that feeling is effectively conveyed in the film.
Foxcatcher is told from the perspective of Dave Schultz’ brother, Mark played by Channing Tatum. The elder Schultz is played by Mark Ruffalo, both actors completely inhabit their roles. They’re unrecognizable. And the same can be said for Steve Carrell’s du Pont, a man descending into madness. The attention to detail is remarkable. Director Bennett Miller, who is following up the Academy Award-nominated Moneyball, has crafted another perfect sports film in that nothing about the actual sporting aspects of this film feels inauthentic. This is not boxing in Rocky. To my relatively untrained eye, Tatum and Ruffalo as the Schultz brothers look like expert wrestlers, in their physique, their mannerisms, all in keen and purposeful contrast to Carrell’s du Pont who is a dilettante in their world, aching to be accepted.
Play sports long enough and you might very well have met a team sponsor or figurehead coach who overstepped his or her bounds. Sponsors rarely just open their check books out of the kindness of their heart alone, and du Pont seems to embody the notion that being a devoted fan of something meant being an expert at it. But enjoying something doesn’t give you expertise; that contrast is shown in his foray into seniors wrestling. Du Pont is the delusional fan, but his fraying mental health takes it beyond anything we would ever expect to encounter. And if you think Carrell’s portrayal of du Pont’s mental state is artistic license, the team behind Foxcatcher actually toned it down.
Some critics have claimed the film is too slow, too silent, but as Murray suggests, there is a methodical unease in the silence. It is the kind of awkward silence that polite society might keep when encountered by a John E. du Pont. What do you say to a crazy person? In this case, the Schultz brothers let the money do the talking. Mark Schultz says he knew something was off about du Pont from the first time he met him. But the checks kept coming, and even if he did eventually leave, his brother Dave stayed for seven more years until the day he was killed.
Everyone around du Pont always knew he was off, but in the months leading up to Schultz’s murder, he was described as being unhinged, paranoid and delusional. He was a ticking time-bomb, but nobody was ready to do anything about it. What can you do? Foxcatcher was released not long before the announcement that Texas will put schizophrenic convicted murderer Scott Panetti to death (he has since been given a stay of execution). Like du Pont, he showed symptoms of paranoid delusional schizophrenia years before he committed murder. It is often unexpected, and it is inexplicable in any rational way, and with every uneasy, silent sequence that passes in Foxcatcher, the tension of this kind of knowing grows. We sense what is coming, in fact, we know it, but we still are unable to do anything about it.