There was a moment in time when the sort of poverty one seemingly required to be an elite, world class level wrestler was going to go away in a sea of philanthropy. The 1980s and 90s fueled the first of the modern wrestling clubs, with the Sunkist Kids and Team Foxcatcher leading the way in allowing America’s world class wrestlers continue to compete at the world class level without the destitution seemingly required. John du Pont seemed to be one of the men who somehow would take USA Wrestling from something that bordered on a masochistic endeavor into something that would allow the modern elite American wrestler to thrive. Coming off a record Olympics in 1984, aided by most of the rest of the world’s elite staying at home following the US’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow games during the Cold War, Team Foxcatcher seemed to be a light the rest of the country could follow.
And then Dave Schultz was brutally murdered by du Pont in 1996, rocking the wrestling world. Foxcatcher follows the Schultz brothers, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) through their period at Team Foxcatcher from 1987 through Dave’s death in 1996.
When we meet Mark he’s giving a speech for some elementary school kids, living in a crappy apartment and living off a diet consisting of Ramen noodles and cheap fast food. A reigning Olympic gold medalist, and soon to be world champion, Schultz is living a life of squalor in pursuit of another Olympic medal. He’s the training partner of his brother Dave, who is a family man with an Olympic gold and two children at this point. It’s then when du Pont (Steve Carell) walks into their lives. The chemical empire heir has a goal in his life: to bring the best wrestlers in the US to train out of his facility on the du Pont family’s estate. The film follows the two in the decade they spend at Team Foxcatcher, up to the death of the elder Schultz brother at the hands of du Pont.
Shot in a true crime style, this is an interesting and nearly historically accurate look at the period and the relationship between du Pont and the Schultzes. It’s mainly about the bizarre behavior of du Pont, who viewed himself as this molder of men and wrestling coach of some note. In reality he was a man with profound mental illness indulged upon, instead of institutionalized, because of his family’s untold wealth. He picked amateur wrestling among a number of pursuits with no experience in the sport and up until his murder of Schultz was more of a wacky philanthropist than a potentially violent man. He was a harmless man with a big checkbook who indulged in freestyle wrestling in a way USA wrestling and the US Olympic committee couldn’t or wouldn’t.
And Carell nails down the inherent creepiness from the chemical family heir in a way that’s potentially career altering for him. Carell is no stranger to dramatic work despite being known for his comedic work, of course, but this is dark in a way he’s never gone. There’s something off about du Pont early on and everyone knows it; it’s interesting to see Carell play this man who thought he was a sophisticated molder of elite athletes but in reality was a mentally damaged and possibly latently homosexual man who was profoundly damaged psychologically. There’s an aura of menace whenever he’s around; something bad feels like it’ll happen whenever Carell is on screen. If you don’t know the story of Mark Schultz’s death going in you will know something bad will happen by the end of the film. This should at a minimum earn him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.
Throw in some strong performances from both Tatum and Ruffalo as the Schultz brothers and you should have one of the best films of the year. The problem is that what the film gets right, of how high level wrestlers compete in training from warm-ups to hard sparring, it doesn’t have that final gear to go from being really good to being excellent.
Bennett Miller gets a pair of great performance from Tatum and Ruffalo, as he’s a great director for actors, but it starts because they’re credible as high level wrestlers. We won’t confuse them with being able to step into an elite level competition right now, of course, but both actors have trained exceptionally hard to learn how to both wrestle credibly as well as wrestle like their counterparts. Ruffalo gets the essence of the methodical Dave Schultz down while Tatum’s natural athletic ability works well to coincide with Mark’s freakish athletic ability. It’s the one thing playing an elite athlete many actors don’t pull off as well as they should, usually, and it’s something the duo nail down. There’s an unspoken way the two communicate while warming up that speaks volumes and as the intensity ratchets up we feel it.
These aren’t two actors in a role; these are two lions competing to see who’s going to eat tonight. You can’t fake that sort of intensity in a wrestling room and the two have it. Outside of the mats they make for an interesting combination. Ruffalo is in a more maternal role, as the elder Schultz brother was more of a father figure in real life, and Tatum’s youth in comparison gives it an interesting context. Tatum is slowly turning into an actor finding the right kind of roles to fit his style, as opposed to taking high profile ones where he’s fairly awful, and Mark Schultz is a great part for him. This is easily the best work of his career, by far, and don’t be shocked if he finds himself in serious Oscar consideration this fall.
Foxcatcher might be the best of a fairly low level of film quality when it comes to amateur wrestling, standing head and shoulders above fare like Vision Quest and Reversal.
Director: Bennett Miller Writer: E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman Notable Cast: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.