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Foxcatcher is a chilly, brilliant look at male friendship and inequality

Steve Carell plays John du Pont in the brilliant, chilly new film Foxcatcher.
Steve Carell plays John du Pont in the brilliant, chilly new film Foxcatcher.
Sony Pictures Classics
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Foxcatcher is a perfect movie. This is meant as both (huge) compliment and (slight) detriment, but it's true. Every frame of this film feels fussed over and pored over and pulled together with an exactitude you don't always see. It's a dark story of the American class war, but one that plays out almost entirely in a visual sense, the great looming mansion at the story's center dominating the background of shots, so you always remember just where these characters are.

Foxcatcher is based on a true story, but it's stripped out a fair amount of that story's weirdness in favor of a kind of detached, chilly eeriness. It's looking to be a big player at the Oscars — where multiple nominations are plausible — yet it's a distinctly colder film than the awards usually go for. At times, it feels like it could be about space aliens, viewed from afar with a clinical gaze. These are human beings, sure, but they also seem like strange creatures we cannot quite understand.


John du Pont (Steve Carell) talks with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) about his wrestling aspirations. (Sony Pictures Classics)

Based on a true story

The film takes as its basis the true story of John du Pont, a member of the wealthy, prestigious family that started the chemical company of the same name. Living in seclusion on Pennsylvania's Foxcatcher Farms, du Pont decided to get involved in the US wrestling program, so that he might be responsible for the training of a gold medal winner. As such, his life intersected with the lives of Dave and Mark Schultz, both gold medalists at the 1984 Summer Olympics, and that intersection would result in tragedy for the brothers.

Getting the full plot of Foxcatcher is as simple as going to John du Pont's Wikipedia article, so director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman make the unusual choice of focusing less on the lurid, sensational aspects of what happened and more on the terrifying need for emotional connection felt by du Pont (played here by a nearly unrecognizable Steve Carell) and Mark Schultz (a terrific Channing Tatum). Both feel inadequate, emotionally dislocated. And in each other, they seemingly hope to find that connection.

But even there, the filmmakers pull back from that emotional core and, instead, focus on the economics of what's happening. Mark Schultz might live a very nice life once he joins Team Foxcatcher, but he is, in essence, the bought and paid-for property of John du Pont. He is not to go up to the big house — the one that looms so magisterially in many shots — and he is to give John's mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in a small but devastating part) her distance. He is in this world, but he is not of it. And he is reminded of that, over and over again, no matter how close he gets to his patron.

John tells Mark a story midway through the film about when he was a child and realized his mother had paid another boy to be his friend. It has a resonance with what's on screen. John du Pont can buy a wrestling program, but he can't buy the respect and adoration of the men on that program. And that starts to eat away at him in a fashion that has horrible consequences.


Mark and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) have a moment of connection. (Sony Pictures Classics)

A study in male relationships

Though the center of the film is the twisting, twisted relationship between John and Mark, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) pops up throughout, the seemingly well-adjusted point of comparison for both of the other characters. He has a wife and children. He has gainful employment. Whatever trauma the Schultz brothers endured as children (alluded to but never completely spelled out), Dave has pushed his way through it to a state of grace. That makes him exactly the kind of man both Mark and John want to be, which means, of course, that Dave must be pulled into their corrosive orbit.

Miller — whose other two films were Capote and Moneyball — has always been primarily interested in the contours of male relationships, in the ways that men relate to each other, even when nobody else is looking. In Capote, that played out as the titular author building a fitful connection with one of the criminals he would write about in In Cold Blood. In Moneyball, it played out as Billy Beane trying to change the way baseball teams — a beacon of American masculinity if ever there was one — are built, all with the help of a nerdy sidekick who quickly became an unlikely friend.

Foxcatcher takes that theme always implicit in Miller's work and pushes it to the forefront. The relationships between Dave and Mark, Mark and John, and John and Dave are all very different. Women are largely non-entities in this tightly focused sphere — or they make their displeasure known at being asked to become non-entities. Foxcatcher is all about an extreme close-up on male intimacy, on the way that society often asks men to bury their emotions in ways that erupt painfully.

An early sequence holds Dave and Mark in a tight mid-shot, as they move here and there in the frame, warming up for wrestling practice. A sparring match turns more and more real, and we get everything we need to know about the relationship between the brothers from their physicality in these moments. Mark resents Dave, even as he loves him. Even he's not sure why.

When critics say that a film's frames are painstaking, they often mean that the director and crew have carefully positioned all the stationary elements within the frame to achieve some sort of maximum visual effect. But placement of the actors within the frame is just as important to this effect, and this may be Miller's chief achievement.

Carell, in particular, is very, very still throughout, holding his makeup-adorned visage in a kind of constant pose, as if waiting for a portrait artist who is just off-camera forever. He, too, is a director, of his own image, holding himself in the way he imagines a leader of men might hold himself, and surrounding himself with icons of the man he might like to be.

Foxcatcher often seems like an elaborate duet between close-ups and long shots, yet the close-ups (which normally invite us into a character's thought processes by letting us focus solely on their face) obscure, instead of illuminate. It's the long shots that tell the true story of the giant gap between John and the brothers; a gap the former keeps trying to close but can never manage to cross. John is not the man he longs to be, no matter how much money he has. And that will always be his shame.


Steve Carell is nearly unrecognizable in the film. (Sony Pictures Classics)

A deeply political film

Foxcatcher is, ultimately, a deeply political film, but not in the way you might think. Not in terms of conservatives versus liberals, or Democrats versus Republicans. It's about the way that we often use philosophies — political or economic or religious — to cover over the things we don't like about ourselves, about how easy it is to lose oneself in ideology when looking for a true calling.

In particular, the film argues, this is true of men. And especially American men, who are always looking for a code, always looking for a list of rules to follow to lead more fulfilling lives and often missing that the code must always come from within, must always start with personal betterment, rather than telling others how to live their lives. John, Mark, and Dave fall apart not because they lack codes, but because they can never let well enough alone with each other.

The film has its flaws. Miller's clinical approach occasionally leaves scenes wanting for an emotional core, casting about for meaning that never quite arrives, leaving this just a step behind the very similar Capote (also scripted by Futterman). And though the cold approach mostly works, it also occasionally leaves the character of John adrift, the audience wondering just why he's doing certain things (for which a quick scan of the aforementioned Wikipedia article wouldn't hurt).

But ultimately, Foxcatcher is beautifully on-point, dedicated to the way capitalism and dreams tend to get bound up in each other and eat away at someone's gut until a shiny bauble is all he can think about.

Because always, there's the mansion looming in the background, rising out of the fog, dominating everything in the landscape, or tiny statues and icons of foxes dotting the interior of that mansion, calling back to the farm's past as a home for fox hunts. You can capture the thing. You can pin it down. But you can never really have it, because what you wanted was never in the thing to begin with. It was the part of yourself you didn't realize you were missing.

One of the last music cues in the film is a mournful cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," played as one character does something they'd previously thought they'd never do. It speaks to the way that chasing a dream is useful, to a point, but can ultimately become self-defeating and damaging. You might attain your dream. You might win a gold medal. But true fulfillment can never come from what you can hold in your hands. Chase that, and you're endlessly reaching for the mansion on the hill, always coming up short.

Foxcatcher opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. It will open throughout the country over the course of the rest of the year.