Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” gets under your skin. You have no idea where it is heading, only a vague but increasing sense that something is badly wrong, and when a gun is finally pulled and fired into someone’s gut you think: but of course. Did Miller get in training for this film by making “Capote”, his 2005 movie about the writing of “In Cold Blood”? There, the psychopathology was dirt-poor, rough-neck, as flat as the Kansas skyline. Here it comes from the poisonous mixture of wealth, power and thwarted dynasticism that grew like nightshade on the estate of John du Pont, the real-life heir of the du Pont business dynasty and a self-styled patriot. In the late 1980s, he built a state-of-the-art training facility for two brother wrestlers with whom he had become obsessed. We first see the brothers wrestling during training: Mark (Channing Tatum) draws blood from his elder brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), only to be put firmly in his place. The entire sequence—wordless but for the squeaks of sneakers and slaps of flesh—is a piece of silent, brutal ballet that tells you everything you need to know about the fierce fraternal bond that is about to be corrupted.
As Dave, who has played father to his little brother since they were kids, Ruffalo acts with his entire body, his shoulders sloping, his love for his brother visible in every bear hug. Tatum’s Mark, meanwhile, is thick-set, brooding, his brow permanently knotted by his elder brother’s supremacy. When he receives a summons to the estate of du Pont (Steve Carell), who speaks deliriously of Olympic gold, the look on Tatum’s face registers the wonder of someone hearing his private thoughts spoken aloud for the first time. It would be condescending to call Carell’s performance a revelation—it marks the fruition of a career-long fascination with playing the delusional—but it’s the first time he’s worked on such a granular level, psychologically. Slumped in his chair, his eyes dead, taking shallow puffs of breath that barely lift his chest and speaking in lethargic clusters of words as if all such expenditure were beneath him, Carell is mesmerising. The performance is much funnier than you might expect, but it inspires the darkest laughter. Du Pont’s drunken victory celebration, in which the weakling megalomaniac lets it all slip, is hilarious, grisly watching, with Carell freebasing on the kind of delirium once loosed by Peter Sellers.
The warning signs rack up: du Pont’s gaseous invocations of American patriotism; his love of firearms; an offer of cocaine. As Miller showed with “Capote” and “Moneyball”, he loves austere, empty compositions, and here he adds audible silences to the vast spaces of du Pont’s estate—a Kubrickian echo chamber in which every twitch and rustle can be registered. The understanding shown by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script of the perverted family dynamics at play here—with du Pont replacing Dave as Mark’s father figure, but twisted with hatred towards his own mother (Vanessa Redgrave)—is penetrating, nuanced and largely subterranean. The film is all undercurrents and eerie hushes. Catching a glimpse of Dave’s happy family life, du Pont gazes on with the distant fascination of a Martian—it’s everything he is not. He would destroy it as casually as someone disposes of trash.
Miller’s obliquity doesn’t serve him 100% of the time—the final slide into violence is too scantily limned and could have done with one more scene elaborating the tipping point—but the film gets to you, nevertheless. It has the hum of unearthed power cables.
Foxcatcher opens in America on November 14th and in Britain on January 9th