In the mid-1980s, wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic medalist, is adrift, overshadowed by his older, more gregarious brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic medalist. So he's flattered and intrigued when John du Pont (Steve Carell) — of the super-rich chemical family — invites him to reside at the wrestling facility he's built on his country estate, Foxcatcher Farms. The goal is to build and train teams for the 1988 Olympics, and in time, Mark convinces David to join Team Foxcatcher as a coach.
On the one hand, Foxcatcher is the true story of three men — two wrestlers and their oddball benefactor — whose relationship ends in tragedy. It's also an examination of money and power; of how men struggle to define themselves; and of how institutions such as work, patriotism and sports can mask cultural and individual pathologies.
This is to say that Bennett Miller's finely crafted drama is really about a lot, even as it doesn't have a lot of plot and lacks easy emotional toe-holds. It's among this year's best films, featuring great work by the actors, and a sure hand intertwining storytelling and more layered myth-busting. But be forewarned: It's chilly and bleak.
The film's main thread is a slow-burning and somewhat remote character study, during which the largely unrelieved tension between the men ratchets up. Du Pont and Mark — both damaged, searching and awkward — initially find purpose in the other: Du Pont vibes off Mark's athleticism and youth, while Mark thrives under the paternal care of du Pont. But du Pont's buckets of money can't hide his delusional megalomania and cruelty, and Mark's fairy-tale gym quickly turns into a cage. Nor is there any hope of the friendship bridging the colossal wealth and power divide.
The film at times resembles a domestic horror story, in which off-kilter behavior stands in for ominous creaks and shadows, and unease stalks its primary settings: the patrician confines of du Pont's mansion, all hunting trophies, chintz sofas and gilt; the fluorescent-lit gym, liberally emblazoned with the Foxcatcher team logo; and the foggy rural expanse of the farm, in which the characters appear lost.
The estate is named Foxcatcher for the sport practiced by its wealthy inhabitants, but it's a creepily apt shorthand for the whole ill-pursued relationship: the snaring of the attractive prey by the entitled operating with unfair advantage. ("My friends," du Pont lies, "call me ‘Eagle,'" further underscoring his predatory nature.) As in hunting, you can chase and even catch the fox, but that trapped animal isn't the glorious creature you desired.