Foxcatcher is about leaving the shadows of comfort and forging your own path. The hard-won road toward personal singularity has its price and that becomes the source of much of the subdued dramatic tension in Bennett Miller’s film. Foxcatcher is an unsettling picture that positions its characters in a dense fog of distress and isolation. Silence dictates movement in the film, where its triptych of characters communicate through physicality rather than words. It is a depressing and oppressive work, though a notably powerful one.
The film opens on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). In one of the film’s many deconstructions, Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman strip away the perceived celebrity profile often linked with contemporary Olympic athletes. Following an early morning training session, Mark speaks to a small auditorium of grade school students. He earns 20 bucks for the effort, of which most of it goes to a trip to a fast food restaurant. Mark leads a life of disappointment, with only ornate tokens of his achievements and reminders of the American promise in his apartment to soothe his loneliness. Mark’s brother David (Mark Ruffalo), another Olympian, is well-adjusted in comparison. He’s a family man, dedicated to his wife and children. He’s clearly attuned to his brother’s disparate isolation and offers the picture a semblance of warmth and humanity.
Despite David’s well-intentioned gestures, Mark’s distress partly stems from living in his brother’s shadow. The two, one would figure, are on equal grounds as celebrated athletes, But Mark lacks the natural charisma and leadership skills of his brother and is simply more prone to brood and sulk. When Mark receives a cryptic phone call from the du Pont dynasty, whereby he’s offered a first-class ticket to meet the opulent John du Pont (Steve Carell), he accepts the offer with little resistance. The film, at this point, has established the social and emotional anguish of Mark’s routine. The du Pont request is less an option and more a necessity. In their meeting, du Pont speaks in platitudes, addressing a decaying American resolve and the need for the country to soar again. This first encounter serves as the pivotal sequence that defines the trajectory of Foxcatcher, where the dialogue conjures images of confinement and flight.
Miller realizes this deconstruction of masculinity and brotherhood with an eye akin to Claire Denis’. Violence and comfort are realized through the physical. Take for example the film’s best scene: Mark violently lashes out against his body after he fails to win a match. He punches himself, slams his head against a mirror, and binges on the hotel’s room service. David finds him. He slaps his brother before finally embracing him in his arms, holding the defeated Mark and lovingly reassuring him. Miller emphasizes the contours and arcs of Mark’s frame: this vessel of masculine aggression needs the love of his brother to forge on. Other scenes, such as an early training sequence between Mark and David, lingers on the batting away of hands. Miller fixates on the shadows of the wrestling mat as the two jockey for position. To David, it is simply a training session. To Mark, it goes far beyond that, where victory leads to a sense of identity. He does not simply want to be known as David’s little brother but rather Mark Schultz, the best in the world.
The film’s final act of violence is a brutal one, shown in cold, matter-of-fact detail. It’s an act of pent-up aggression that calls upon films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? or Aki Kaurismäki’s The Match Factory Girl. But those are European efforts and to find a similar-minded American one is difficult - more often than not American examples are filled with over-the-top exaggerations of anxiety, lacking in the necessary catharsis that precedes the violence. To see Miller apply such an inherently European sensibility onto an American text is both jarring and brilliant. With this application, Foxcatcher reveals truths about our culture’s struggle to reconcile truth and reality. Success is billed as a virtue to be achieved by domination. As du Pont mentions early in the film, it’s important for his athletes to be confident - to assume victory before it happens. And that’s where the film uncovers its greatest and most depressing reality: like the canary in the coal mine, you live or die within the confines of a caged dream.