By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It was a chilling moment in an indelible 1996 news story about America’s richest family…
Chemical-fortune blueblood John E. du Pont drives his car across his 800-acre suburban estate near Valley Forge, pulls up to the house in front of which former Olympic gold-medalist wrestler Dave Schultz, temporarily living there, is repairing the radio in his car, pulls out a gun, and shoots him three times, killing him.
That’s pretty much how the character-study docudrama Foxcatcher ends.
Such was the crime that drew international attention nearly twenty years ago, when the world came to know of the infamous murder of an Olympic wrestler by his friend, employer, and benefactor, multimillionaire John du Pont (played by Steve Carell), patron saint of amateur wrestling, who offered generous financial and moral support of struggling Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, and ended up taking the life of Schultz’s older brother, Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo.
The Schultzes remain the only American brothers ever to have won both Olympic (1984) and world championships.
Carell, wearing a prosthetic nose and age-altering makeup that renders him close to unrecognizable, portrays the chillingly eccentric control freak du Pont, while Vanessa Redgrave turns up in the small but crucial role of John’s disapproving mother, Jean.
The title comes from the 800-acre suburban estate, the state-of-the-art Foxcatcher National Training Center, where du Pont – who was later found guilty of murder but mentally ill, deemed a paranoid schizophrenic, and died in prison in 2010 – first invites underachiever and self-appointed sad sack Mark Schultz to take up residence and train on du Pont’s virtual wrestling preserve. Mark, sensing that this might be the father he never felt he had, accepts the offer and moves in as a virtual executive in the private wrestling club.
Later, du Pont extends a similar invitation to Mark’s older brother, Dave, who has a wife and kids and is working as a wrestling coach. Du Pont won’t take no for an answer, and the brothers Schultz begin training for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
Director Bennett Miller, no stranger to the cinema of nonfiction (Capote, Moneyball, and the documentary, The Cruise), refuses to gild the lily and sticks to the facts, perhaps even underselling his tall but telling tale.
Miller takes a deliberate, reserved, understated approach, which is fine in the early stages but disappointing in the third act when the distinct lack of narrative momentum becomes clear. And what should be the film’s climactic occurrence – the murder that the entire ticking-time-bomb narrative has been building towards — is handled so routinely, so obliquely, it doesn’t do the real-life tragedy justice and robs us of an emotional payoff.
Still, the three leads are first-rate. Carell, who will get the most attention but is certainly no more impressive than the never-better Ruffalo and Tatum, is spellbinding even though he does a bit too much acting with that distracting schnozz that he can look down at everybody with, and his presence in this decidedly dark narrative never stops being fascinatingly odd. As is the character he plays, to be sure.
The screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, based on Mark Schultz’s autobiography, focuses on the differences between the haves and have-nots, the corrupting effect of inherited wealth and privilege, and the way old money leads to power and influence.
Du Pont wants his wrestlers to be superior to their opponents in the same way that he and his family would appear to see themselves as superior to those around them. But there’s not much else in the way of psychological insight into du Pont’s twisted ambition and overwhelming obsessions.
So we’ll wrestle 2½ stars out of 4. The absorbing true-crime drama, Foxcatcher, may be disappointingly affectless, but Carell, Ruffalo, and Tatum expertly pin down their roles.