Foxcatcher is not a sports movie—though it is about sports, training, underdogs, the Olympics, and winning. It is also not a "wrestling movie."

Basically, it is not what you expect. The protagonist isn't a world-class wrestler or even an eccentric heir: it's America. You’ll have to watch, or you might miss it.

Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher'
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher'

The film is the true, strange story of 1984 Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz and billionaire John du Pont—or should I say John “Golden Eagle” du Pont, the ornithologist and wrestling coach and philatelist and explorer and philanthropist and the heir to his family’s fortune, built on supplying ammunition to the upstart American army during the Revolutionary War.

In 1987, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is three years out from his win in Los Angeles and training for the World Championships with his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo)—also an Olympic gold medalist and a bit of a golden boy. Older brother Dave is gregarious and principled and beloved by his wife and two children. He's also beloved of the elite wrestling community; though he doesn't compete much anymore, he's a coach, and Mark's training partner. During their tough childhood, Dave raised Mark, who also values patriotism, sportsmanship, training, and virtue: giving a talk to a mildly interested auditorium of elementary school children, he tells them about his medal and “the virtues it requires to attain it.”

But Mark's life is not like Dave's, and his brother's fame has eclipsed his own by a long shot. He only got the elementary school gig because Dave had to cancel, and he receives a $20 check for his effort. He lives in an apartment above a garage, eats ramen, and spends his days training for Worlds and then for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

So Mark is surprised when his phone rings, and on the other end is a man asking him to fly to Pennsylvania to meet with John du Pont (Steve Carell, transformed by some serious facial prosthetics), who has been trying to get in touch with him. He does—”Do you have any idea who I am?” du Pont asks, and Mark shakes his head—and discovers that du Pont wants to fund him to train and win the World Championships and another Olympic gold.

For America, of course.

“We as a nation have failed to honor you,” du Pont tells Mark, who knows full well how the Soviets treat their wrestlers. “I want to be the best in the world,” Mark says without a hint of swagger and with full knowledge of his ability to do so. Caught up in the idea that America needs heroes, Mark packs up his things and moves to a house on the du Pont family estate, Foxcatcher Farms, and begins training himself and a team of other young wrestlers to be the best in the world. Du Pont is his benefactor and a bit of an inspiration, “the most generous man in America,” according to Mark, and a bit of a renaissance man.

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But then things get weird. It becomes clear that du Pont is used to buying whatever he wants, including, he hopes, Dave Schultz. But Dave refuses to uproot his family. Forced to settle for Mark, du Pont occupies himself with fulfilling his dream to be Team Foxcatcher's head wrestling coach and, eventually, head coach for the USA wrestling team, even though he isn't much of a wrestler. Part of the reason is that his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) disapproves of wrestling. It is a “low” sport. She prefers fancy show horses and fox hunts and velvet cloche hats.

Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo in 'Foxcatcher'
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo in 'Foxcatcher'

The screenwriting team behind Foxcatcher (Dan Futterman, who wrote Capote along with episodes of In Treatment and Gracepoint, and E. Max Frye) did a bit of fudging on the dates in Foxcatcher, but the contours of the true story remain the same—in fact, they toned down the du Pont character a bit, leaving out some of his well-known eccentricities.

This is the third feature narrative film for director Bennett Miller, who has managed to direct four actors to Oscar nominations in critically-acclaimed and admired films: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener for Capote, and Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill for Moneyball (Hoffman won). Earlier this year at Cannes, he nabbed Best Director for Foxcatcher. For these reasons—and because his movies are sort of the unicorns of the movie world (beloved of critics, winners of awards, and enjoyable to boot), Miller has gained a reputation as an actor's director.

All that skill is on display once again here. Tatum lumbers around like a bull in a china shop—you hold your breath when he first enters the du Pont mansion, lest he break something. Ruffalo is sweet and nerdy and balding a bit and musclebound. And Carell, well: Carell is terrifying as du Pont, morphing from weird but nice guy to villain right under your nose, so subtly you barely notice it till it's too late. Like Mark.

Despite the manufactured nose and overbite, it's hard to miss Carell's Office boss Michael Scott under du Pont's skin, and it's startling, but it makes sense. Both deeply insecure characters exist in their own lonely fairyland of privilege, so cocooned by circumstance and power that they've never developed the self-awareness to recognize (or face up to) how ridiculous they are. Remember—how could you forget—how Michael Scott fancies himself a stand-up comedian? And a screenwriter? Director? Athlete? Ladies' man? World's Best Boss?

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Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher'
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher'

Make some swaps up the economic food chain and that's du Pont, who's assigned himself his own ludicrous nickname. Except what saved Michael Scott was that at the end of the day, he wasn't really a bad guy, and he cared about (some) people. John du Pont doesn't care about people as people; for him, they are replaceable playthings to be bought and sold like trophies and pets and toy trains. His world has always been molded around him; the only person he hasn't been able to control is his mother, who prefers elite show horses.

Everything about Foxcatcher is so subtle that it risks, at times, losing any easily distracted audience members. It's light on the music, preferring to let us listen to the squeaks and skids and thumps on the wrestling mat. Actual incidental music is largely ironic, underlining just how much this is not a triumphant movie about overcoming odds—quite the opposite. And scenes are consistently edited such that we get mere hints of final reaction shots, frequently with a gesture from an actor (arms raised, a facial gesture, a grimace) that cuts their glory short.

When I saw Gone Girl, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was a movie about the false promises and pretenses of the U.S. housing crisis; similarly, watching Foxcatcher—a much better and subtler film, by the way—I was convinced this is a story about America, or about an America generations out from its founding but still feeling its youth, flexing its muscles to exert its will while living in the shadow of those who have cast a bigger, broader shadow.

The America imagery is part of John du Pont's life—he has flags all over the place, he considers himself keeper of the country's legacy, and he even calls himself “Golden Eagle”—but it's ostentatious throughout, culminating in a shot of him reclining in his desk chair with what must certainly be a very old, battle-worn flag framed on the wall behind him. And because the ostensible motivation for what both John du Pont and Mark do is their patriotism (as opposed to Dave, who does it for his family's security), it's hard to miss the parallels.

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And then there is the matter of Foxcatcher Farms, and the black-and-white photos of the fox hunts that begin the film and hang over its very name. Fox hunting, however disputed, is undeniably a pointless sort of hunting, completely for sport. It is very British, very uppercrusty, a spectre of the country's older patronage, engaged in by its noble forefathers (and mothers) and their elite horses, that haunts its upstart “lower” sports. Which still rings loudly for us. Why, after all, are we so obsessed with Downton Abbey as a country? (It can't just be the dresses.) And why have researchers widely found that Americans perceive those with British (or British-sounding) accents) to be smarter than those without?

Maybe, the film suggests, we're still living in the shadows of our parents and older siblings.

Furthermore, why are Americans forever worrying about how we look to others around the globe? Shouldn't we know? Are we living on borrowed privilege? And do we sense it could run out on us?

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher'
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher'

Foxcatcher gives a number of possible ends to this narrative, ranging from a regrettable decline in fortunes all the way to out-and-out violence. Surely these are not all the options. But it rings a cautionary note: our perceptions of ourselves as a country need constant reflection. What made a family great at its beginning? Is it just the image of greatness? Is it wealth? Or is there something more to our privilege that requires our attention?

If Foxcatcher has a problem, it's that the story is ultimately not a classically-understood comedy, like most sports movies, which even when they're earnestly unfunny still end in triumph and the world being set right. This is a tragedy. It's a tragedy about a broken hero, a fallen family, and a downward trajectory toward anonymity, if not violence; it's also a (hopefully cautionary) tragedy about a country so bent on its own wish fulfillment that it loses sight of what on earth it is doing here in the first place.

That means it's not much fun, by the end. But golly: by my lights, it's a pretty perfectly-made, carefully crafted, well-acted, engaging film that is doing far more than meets the eye.

Caveat Spectator

(There may be spoilers ahead.)

Foxcatcher is rated R for some drug use and a scene of violence, but it's really closer to a PG-13 movie, with no sex at all and no nudity save a long-range shot of rear male nudity in a sports context. Many parents and teens could watch the film together, and may want to. It's a movie about wrestling, so there are wrestling-related matches, which aren't at all “violent” but in a few cases can lead to violence: a bloody nose, some knockout punches to the head, that sort of thing. There is a surprisingly restrained amount of bad language, amounting to a few scattered profanities. There are some extremely subtle intimations of potentially homoerotic behavior, but because of the context, it's just a shade inseparable from the normal physicality of wrestling and you could read the film a few different ways (the real du Pont was actually accused by one of his wrestlers of sexual harassment, though). Characters snort coke on several occasions. One character loses it in a hotel room and slams his head into a mirror repeatedly, and later vomits repeatedly, which we hear. And, most jarringly, one character shoots another three times with a gun. Though the details around that are historic fact, it is still absolutely shocking.

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Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and writes the Watch This Way blog; she is also assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.

Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
(5 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For some drug use and a scene of violence.)
Directed By
Bennett Miller
Run Time
2 hours 14 minutes
Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Theatre Release
January 16, 2015 by Sony Pictures Classics
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