That Foxcatcher is a smarter, more subtle film than its "based on a true story" origin would suggest is quickly understood. For the first 20 minutes, director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) follows Mark Schultz's (Channing Tatum) daily drudge, as he eats cheap convenience food, does a half-hearted show-and-tell for school kids for a miserly pay cheque, and finally sets in for a wrestling training session with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo).
Both wrestling athletes with Olympic medals for a sport most people don't even think once about, the Schultz brothers get by through their quintessentially American blue-collar work ethics. But while Dave has a job coaching college sportsmen and a family, Mark is an intense, obsessed, somewhat isolated loner. All we need to know about Mark and Dave and their push-and-pull relationship is shown and not told - especially during the long takes of that wrestling training, the feints and coups and reactions speaking volumes about Mark's self-demeaning resentment and Dave's well-meaning obliviousness and the deep affection underlining it.
Into this relationship, then, comes millionaire heir John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), a wrestling aficionado who dreams of giving the sport its nobility in the US and is willing to throw good money at it, choosing Mark as his "tip of the spear" that will get him inside the door in order to gain control of the Olympic team. The fuel has been ignited.
Mark wants to make a name for himself away from Dave, who won't follow him into Du Pont's embrace. In turn, the millionaire wants to leave a mark of his own and prove to his mother (a brief cameo from Vanessa Redgrave) that he is not just a spoilt child who pays his way into everything.
Unfolding over two years' time with the 1988 Seoul Olympics as its flashpoint, Foxcatcher's tragic dénouement is in the cards from that very beginning that shows-and-tells the family roots underlying everything. The Schultz/Du Pont connection is presented from one hand as an attempt at replicating a familial core absent from each of the men's lives, but also a sort of twisted bromance where Mark and John seem to create a father/son connection that's missing in their lives but in fact merely set themselves up for a fall.
Foxcatcher also becomes a disquieting meditation on the role of privilege and money in the shaping of the American Dream, of the tightrope between chasing your dreams and actually fulfilling them. The Schultz brothers devoted themselves to their dream only to find it's not the ideal that moves people, and that innate decency won't get you anywhere - a lesson made clear through Du Pont's throwing money at everything to make sure it succeeds.
Mr. Miller shoots it all with the extreme discretion of a trained observer, allowing his actors time and space to become the characters rather than just impersonating them, always framing them within their environs to better show how these define and constrain them. If everyone's eyes have been on Mr. Carell's unrecognisably chilling performance - you can notice at every moment the glint of madness in his eye and his yearning for recognition - it would be a meaningless feat without his co-stars. Mr. Tatum could well become the next Mark Wahlberg - the underrated beefcake who morphs under the radar into a resourceful, delicate actor, bringing out the remarkable, almost masochistic stoicism in Mark; the ever-reliable and woefully under-valued Mr. Ruffalo delivers yet again another rock-solid performance, mirroring Dave's own central, if supporting, role in the story.
What's even more fascinating is how Mr. Miller proves again, by his directing smarts and adroit choice of material, he is one of the few contemporary filmmakers to truly work in the mold of 1970s classic American cinema. His attention to both artistic and narrative qualities, both within Foxcatcher and in his continuing filmography, suggests a modern-day Sydney Pollack, delivering smart, thoughtful films for a discerning, adult audience without condescending nor dumbing down. And this is his best one yet.
Cast Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd
Director Bennett Miller; screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; cinematographer Greig Fraser (colour); composer Rob Simonsen, with additional material by West Dylan Thordson and Mychael Danna; designer Jess Gonchor; costumes Kasia Walicka-Maimone; editors Stuart Levy, Conor O'Neill and Jay Cassidy; producers Megan Ellison, Mr. Miller, Jon Kilik and Anthony Bregman; production companies Annapurna Pictures in association with Likely Story
Screened December 18th 2014, NOS Colombo 8, Lisbon (distributor press screening)