It is so often the case in a good sports drama to see the young, ambitious protagonist supported in their corner by the wise, older father figure. From Mickey in ‘Rocky’ to Mr Miyagi in ‘The Karate Kid’, along with countless other titles, the sports coach is usually the ultimate agent of good and the encouraging angel on the shoulders of the hero.
However, with ‘Foxcatcher’, we are treated to a nightmarish character study about a coach who couldn’t be further from that mold. Steve Carell is simply divine from first scene to last as John ‘Eagle’ du Pont, of the wealthy du Pont family. Channing Tatum is also on fine form as Mark Schultz, an Olympic gold wrestler who has, despite his success, recently fallen under the shadow of his older, more successful brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). After he is contacted by du Pont and offered sponsorship, training and mentoring, Mark moves into a chalet on du Pont’s massive 800 acre Foxcatcher farm.
Mark and du Pont initially make for a good partnership, with Mark’s strong and silent persona expertly nurtured by du Pont’s eccentric charisma. However, lurking beneath du Pont’s seemingly pleasant veneer lies a darker personality which broods with resentment and gargantuan self importance. Mark is similarly nursing a bruised ego and is constantly at odds with his brother. Frye and Futterman’s script cleverly pits these two damaged personalities against one another, with Mark’s brother Dave framed in the middle as a further catalyst for the dark Jacobean tragedy that ensues.
Director Bennett Miller has done a fantastic job with weaving together a fascinating and at times harrowing psychological thriller. The real life Mark Schultz went on the record to decry the film’s homosexual references. However, whether these were true or not, it works really well within the realms of the film as there are some very suggestive moments, especially regarding du Pont and the implied sexual symbolism in one scene in which he and Mark practice some wrestling moves late at night.
A great deal of why the film works as well as it does is down to Carell’s terrifying unpredictability as du Pont. At times, he cuts a very comical figure; ludicrously perched behind his presidential style desk, pronouncing himself be known as ‘Eagle’, and unleashing countless torrents of spiel bemoaning the state of the country and how he believes he will make America great again by his patriotic championing of wrestling. The comedy is sharply juxtaposed with du Pont’s other side. In various scenes, his cold, piercing eyes send shivers through the heart like a venomous snake waiting to pounce on it’s prey. Carell has thrown himself into this role with every inch of his being. Totally unrecognisable throughout, he transfixes you with his shrilling voice, minimalist expressions, and physical economy.
Tatum and Ruffalo also deliver excellent performances, especially Tatum who infuses Mark with a powerful brute force that seems ready to implode at any moment. However, it truly is Carell’s film, and without his presence I don’t think it would be as accomplished as it is. Still, it’s a fascinating character study which effectively raises many questions about the rivalry and dark undertones that exist in both sport and family.