Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” derives little of its suspense from the climactic spoiler the entire audience knows is coming. As it should — the 1996 trial of paranoid-schizophrenic John du Pont held national interest because of its titillating combination of American aristocracy and Olympic lore. On the cinematic stage, it plays out a more psychological brand of strife: brother against brother, father figure against father figure.


Michigan Theater
Annapurna Pictures

The brothers of “Foxcatcher” are Mark and Dave Schulz, two Olympic gold-medalist wrestlers. Post-victory, Mark (Channing Tatum, “Magic Mike”) lives in moderate poverty, training all day before returning to his dim apartment to eat Ramen and play Nintendo in solitude. In contrast, older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo, “The Avengers”) has a successful coaching career and a loud, happy family no doubt aided by his easy charisma, which Mark holds in taciturn resentment. So when, out of the blue, billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell, “The Office”) of the eponymous pharmaceutical company (and fortune) offers to sponsor Mark’s training at his Foxcatcher training center, he takes it up without any hesitation. Mark, with his clumsy muteness, isn’t a personable character, but his immediate and childlike trust pangs the audience’s heart.

Du Pont is the dwindling end of the du Pont family line: with no role in the company and an endless supply of money, he lives in the sprawling estate with his domineering WASP mother, who together, live out — surprise! — a veritable knot of Freudian neuroses. Du Pont isn’t a good coach or wrestler; he has more money than sense, along with a bevy of substance problems. However, he longs to exert a paternal influence over the fatherless Mark. Du Pont eventually lures Dave to coach the Olympic-hopeful Foxcatcher team. From here, the dueling personalities drive the second half’s tension, as Mark struggles to emerge from his brother’s influence, and John sucks Dave into a petty, unrequited rivalry.

In “Foxcatcher,” the sport of wrestling is stripped from its patriotic residue. Sure, Mark and du Pont laud it as the embodiment of America’s noble, patriarchal values, but their wistful reminiscences feel as outmoded as the du Pont family. This isn’t “Rocky,” where boxing’s potent masculinity is the saving grace for an outsider. Here, wrestling chisels away at all respites to the outside world, until its protagonists teeter on an unsustainable sliver.

It’s the exquisitely directed scenes that illustrate just what an animalistic and low (as du Pont’s mother puts it) sport it is. In one scene, Mark pins down his opponent, whose legs release spastic tremors like an agitated animal in its death throes.

This is in contrast to the training scenes, which feel balletic in their choreography. They’re important because they work out Mark’s intensely physical character, the type of man who feels through doing. In an early scene with Dave, their well-practiced movements glide from brotherly intimacy into tempestuous spates of simmering resentment. Needless to say, Tatum’s attention to detail is remarkable in his performances — Mark is mentally slow and quiet, but never flat. Ruffalo brands Dave with his signature sincerity, saturating him with all the natural charm and likeability that overshadows his younger brother.

Perhaps it’s because du Pont receives little respective characterization that his role is stagnant. While prosthetics and makeup transform Carell’s personable face into a creepy mask, his performance is Michael Scott on ego-maniacal overdrive. In real life, paranoia and schizophrenia probably drove du Pont to murder Dave, but in “Foxcatcher,” deep-seated mommy issues and jealousy are positioned as the unsatisfying motives.

As it stands, a quieter ending would have better fit “Foxcatcher” ’s modus operandi for the bulk of the film: to telescope the imperceptible, unstable and familial politics of the trio. The film is threaded with Miller’s skillfully composed glimpses, which illustrate du Pont’s power maneuvers. In one scene, du Pont’s lawyer prods Mark with a series of questions, like whether he owns property, when his parents divorced and who raised him, that methodically reveal Mark’s isolation. But for this nuanced and un-theatrical atmosphere Miller superbly crafts, that final gunshot is too loud, too disruptive.

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