It’s a basic move in freestyle wrestling: a sudden step forward while dropping to one knee. If you saw a man practicing this action alone, during warm-ups, you’d almost imagine he was sweeping into a low bow before an invisible lord. Watch the same move in a match, and you’ll see it flow into a lunge that knocks the opponent to the mat. For a split second in the choreography of wrestling, aggression can be indistinguishable from submission, violence from courtesy. Stretch that blink of an eye into several years of narrative time—a bit longer than two hours on the screen—and you have the ambiguous tension that drives Foxcatcher.
Directed by Bennett Miller from a screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher is a fictionalized account of the catastrophic interplay between two Olympic champion wrestlers, the brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, and one of the wealthiest men in America, John E. du Pont. Perhaps you’ll recall an outline of the facts from reports of the murder trial. In the late 1980s, around the time he turned 50, du Pont decided to convert a part of his family estate in Pennsylvania into a training facility for wrestlers. He sponsored US amateurs for international competition (calling the athletes he’d collected “Team Foxcatcher,” after the name he’d given the property) and also took up the sport himself, sometimes entering senior matches and sometimes sparring with his facility’s much younger, semi-dependent residents. In 1996, this late athletic career came to an end when du Pont abruptly rolled up to Dave Schultz, who had been living at Foxcatcher, and without warning shot him dead. No motive was ever discovered.
Miller stays true to life in Foxcatcher by declining to explain the murder, perhaps because it’s the part of the story that interests him least. Another filmmaker might have used the old noir device of starting with the gunshots and then telling the story in flashback, so the killing would take on the significance of something that had been fated. In Foxcatcher, though, the only fate is that of entropy, which sends the main characters downward in a three-strand spiral, even as they pursue world conquest in sports and boast (in du Pont’s case) of national renewal. To Miller, murder is just one more damned thing that happens in a story filled with dread but no suspense: a fable of the misunderstanding, heartbreak, irony and absurdity that can abound in America when two social classes grapple in mutual desire and animosity.
To be fair, family life in Foxcatcher also has its push and pull. As the movie begins, in the late Reagan era, you see Mark deliver an uplifting speech about hard work and persistence—it might have been uplifting, anyway, if the kids in the grammar-school auditorium hadn’t been so sparse, and if Mark hadn’t seemed to begrudge them the words that he drags out of memory, one by one—after which he collects a paycheck of $20, made out incorrectly to his older brother. It’s a painful way to introduce a gold medalist; and as Channing Tatum plays him, you already notice the hurt in Mark’s unsmiling gaze, the anger in his jutting lower lip, the brute force pent up in his side-to-side gait. By the next scene, when Mark goes to the gym to be coached by Dave—a bearded and bespectacled Mark Ruffalo—you’re already primed for him to rear up and smash into his brother’s face. (Does Mark mean to cause harm, or is the attack merely misjudged? Impossible to say.) But you might not expect the workout to begin as it does, almost like one of the groping slow dances that this college gym must sometimes witness. The brothers embrace, caress, drape their heads over each other’s shoulders. When Mark draws blood, the perpetually calm and kindly Dave simply wipes it away with a swatch of his white T-shirt.