So many biographical sports films dream of greatness, only to deliver a story that falls short in some critical aspect: the star is too big a celebrity to surrender his identity to the athlete’s; the actual sports scenes don’t quite pass muster; the climax gives in to cheesy melodrama. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, the premiere of which I attended last night as a guest of Stella Artois* at the Cannes Film Festival, avoids all these traps. It aims to tell a different kind of sports story and, by almost every measure, wins the match.
Perhaps the realest thing about this film is, yes, the actual wrestling. From the training and sparring sequences to the matches themselves, it’s not hard to picture yourself right there with these determined, desperate men.
And it’s not as though the degree of difficulty is low, either. This film is no paint-by-numbers football or baseball hero tale. It’s the story of a couple of wrestling brothers who came from nothing and won gold at the ’84 Olympics before becoming entangled with a man who came from everything—and brought a dark side. We meet Dave and Mark Schultz in 1987, when Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo) is angling for a gig with USA Wrestling and younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum) is prepping for the ’87 Worlds, eating Ramen noodles and speaking to elementary schools for twenty-dollar checks. A ray of light opens up for him when he’s approached by middle-aged John Du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to the Du Pont fortune, wrestling fan, patriot and, as we quickly learn, eccentric rich guy.
For way more money than he could have imagined, Mark is hired to recruit and train with a crew of Olympic hopefuls in a beautiful wrestling facility at John’s Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania. In Mark, John sees someone a bit like himself; while Mark has always been in the shadow of big brother Dave, John has never been able to escape that of his mother, who cares much more for horses than for the “low sport” of wrestling. But what starts out as a fatherly relationship turns ugly thanks to John’s ego (he likes to be referred to as “Golden Eagle”), random acts of violence (firing a gun into the ceiling at wrestling practice) and, frankly, madness.
Brotherly love: Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Mark and Dave Schultz.
Eventually John lures in family man Dave as well, returning him to his familiar role of responsible brother and sending Mark further down a self-esteem rabbit hole. And as John’s delusional megolamania grows, so does the viewer’s sense of foreboding, a gnawing feeling that this can only end badly.
But whether or not you know what happened, what really makes this movie work is the meticulously nailed details. Tatum’s cauliflower ears. Ruffalo’s gimpy grappler’s walk. The way he embraces his troubled bro with hugs resembling wrestling holds. The ’80s-style Foxcatcher warmup suits. And Carell, who’s nearly unrecognizable thanks to excessive face makeup, a scratchy voice and general creepiness. As we all know, transforming into someone else is the key to an Oscar nomination, something many believe is now in Carell’s future.
We’ll wait to see if he’s the next Tom Hanks, but perhaps the realest thing about this film is, yes, the actual wrestling. Granted, there are parts in between where the film drags, but from the training and sparring sequences to the matches themselves, it’s not hard to picture yourself right there with these determined, desperate men. There are chokeholds and leglocks, body slams and escape moves, twists and turns and faces being mashed into mats. There are indeed blood, sweat and tears. Every visceral element is captured in a way that brings to life the agony and joy of wrestling, in equal measure.
Ultimately we are left with sadness over a tragedy, shock at one man’s psychosis and a deep appreciation for what it means to strive for greatness in a sport few take notice of in non-Olympic years. Being the best takes superhuman patience, humility and courage. It also requires a hard-to-fathom level of dedication, commitment and sacrifice. Indeed, in the case of two brothers who dreamed only of glory on the mat, that sacrifice extends way beyond what any normal heart can bear.
*Stella Artois has been an official partner of the Cannes Film Festival for 13 years. The partnership shines a spotlight on the men and women whose commitment to excellence makes world-class events such as Cannes Film Festival possible. The sponsorship is part of a larger campaign called the World’s Greatest Events, which you can learn more about by visiting youtube.com/stellaartois.