In “Foxcatcher,” an eerie horror story about one American have and one have-not, a startlingly transformed Steve Carell plays John Eleuthère du Pont, the chemical company heir. A dabbler extraordinaire and apparent fantasist whose family fortune was partly created on battlefields across the world — as a producer of gun powder, dynamite and plutonium — the real du Pont collected monumental amounts of shells, birds and stamps as well as guns and, as the wealthy can do, other human beings. Among the most remarkable of these was an Olympic wrestler, Mark Schultz, who, as embodied by Channing Tatum, is the latest in a seemingly never-ending line of poetic male primitives.
Much of what’s publicly known about the relationship between the real figures in this strange tale comes from news reports that broke after a catastrophically violent episode upended both their lives. Directed by Bennett Miller from a screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, “Foxcatcher” is prefaced by the common assurance that it’s based on a true story, although all the usual caveats apply, with changes, elisions and so forth. This is familiar ground for Mr. Miller, whose films include two fictions rooted in history, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” which, along with being just really good stories, take diagnostic pokes at the national character and its swamp of confusing, contradictory ideas about material success, hard work, self-invention and, inevitably, what it is to be a man.
“Foxcatcher” has another good story, though it’s a slippery one. Beautifully acted and impeccably mounted, it is light on historical details and heavy on atmosphere, character and chintz. The first time you see Mark he’s alone in a gym wrestling with a grappling dummy, an apparatus that looks like an anthropomorphized boxing bag, complete with head and stubby arms. It’s a crude pas de deux, somewhat like watching Gene Kelly get frisky with a beanbag, and hypnotic because of its exotic choreography. It’s also off-putting because there’s something slightly comic and borderline pathetic about a man who is, for all intents and purposes, wrestling with himself. Soon after, Mark delivers a speech to some school kids — he wants to tell them about America — for which he earns a princely $20.
You don’t hear much of what Mark, who’s most expressive when he’s grunting and grappling on a mat, says other than in 1984 he was a champion, winning the gold medal hanging from his neck. The scene cuts away before he’s finished his speech, but like his solitary wrestling, it helps establish the narrowness of his world and the movie’s thematic terrain. By the time a school official is writing Mark his $20 check, Mr. Miller has announced at least some of what he wants to tell us about America. Mark is so isolated visually and narratively that even when he eats — he scarfs fast food alone in his car, and slurps instant noodles in his grim apartment — there’s no question that you’re watching the emergence of a character’s existential condition rather than some guy chow down.
The checks have many more zeros after Mark is summoned to the du Pont estate, a vast swath of prime real estate in Newtown Square, Pa. There, John has created a wrestling facility that he’s baptized Foxcatcher Farm, and which, through his patronage, he hopes or more rightly expects will lead to Olympic glory. Mark accepts the offer to live and train at Foxcatcher, dazzled by John’s wealth and quasi-religious pitch — a hash of patriotism, paternalism, entrepreneurialism and old-fashioned hucksterism. Despite Mark’s appeals, though, his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), himself a gifted wrestler who doesn’t want to uproot his family, declines to join the crusade. When John learns that he’s been turned down he pauses so long that it’s clear the word no is foreign to him.
Much of “Foxcatcher” takes place at this increasingly unfunny funny farm, with its rolling hills, patrician veneer, expensive kitsch, tiptoeing servants, stable of horses and a wizened, wagging finger in the form of John’s disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Mr. Miller’s handling of the earlier stages in John and Mark’s relationship is impeccable and sometimes lightly, uneasily comic. Mr. Carell’s physical transformation is perverse, hypnotic and a touch distracting, and you may find yourself searching for the familiar face behind the pasty skin and large prosthetic nose that juts from John’s face like a cruel joke. Little by little, with long stares, an old man’s shuffle and strange phrasing, Mr. Carell transforms the character from a figure of ridicule into something truly grotesque.
Mr. Miller, however, wants more than just an ordinary American sideshow, and he unwisely tries to expand the story when just telling it would have been enough. At times he seems to be trying to resurrect the idea of two Americas that’s crucial to “Capote,” which tracks Truman Capote’s investigation into the murder of an ordinary family by a pair of killers. But there’s no one here like Capote to guide you through the murk and no one who gives the spectacle of human struggle its spark, as the baseball savant Billy Beane does in “Moneyball.” Mark and John make a fine odd couple in “Foxcatcher” (things get seriously weird at the farm), but they never evolve into the kind of deep, meaningful figures who can carry the weight of Mr. Miller’s symbolism and all those American flags.
Mr. Miller does his finest work with his three superb leads, though I wish he had made more room for Mr. Ruffalo, who enters and exits as Dave flashes in and out of Mark’s life. Some of the best scenes in the movie are of the brothers, including an early one in which they train in their old gym, hitting and grasping in a pantomime of aggression and affection, the crowns of their heads touching like the antlers of young stags testing each other. It’s rare to see such physical male intimacy on screen, especially among men not bonded by war. And it’s in the depictions of this intimacy, in its tangle of bodies and desires — the images of John squirming on top of and below other men say more than any of his pitiful speeches — that “Foxcatcher” rises to the occasion of real tragedy.