Foxcatcher is really a horror film, with John du Pont as its monster and the Schultz brothers as its victims’ says MacDara Conroy

Unfortunately for Bennett Miller, the follow-up to his business-of-baseball biopic Moneyball (a very good film, based on an excellent book) has been beset by no small controversy after its primary subject, erstwhile Olympic champion wrestler Mark Schultz, erupted with an angry rant on social media. A tweetstorm of invective was followed by a rambling Facebook post lambasting the director for the film’s implication of a homosexual undertone to his relationship with John du Pont, the chemical dynasty scion whose plans to spearhead own private Olympic-calibre amateur wrestling team ultimately led to madness and tragedy.

As homophobic as Schultz’s argument may be, the man does have a point. Foxcatcher, Miller’s film of his story, takes no few liberties with the source material, resetting the timeline of events from the mid 1990s to the 1980s (hence anachronisms like cage fighting on TV years before the UFC began) and heavily fictionalising the people involved (including merging characters to fit the film’s agenda, for which Miller has previous). It also certainly embraces the homoerotic aesthetic of a sport where sweat-drenched, muscled men grasp each other in a test of physical dominance. But whether it’s in Mark’s relationship with Du Pont or with his own brother Dave, ‘dominance’ is the key theme above all in this depiction.

Channing Tatum’s thick-necked, dead-eyed Mark Schultz is a man living in shadow, an Olympic champion in his own right but second-fiddle to his more affable brother (Mark Ruffalo), a coach at the local university with whom he regularly spars on the mat. There are echoes of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler in the opening scenes of Mark’s grim existence, driving himself to speaking engagements in place of his brother, fixing a meagre dinner alone in a barely furnished home, constantly reminded that he’s not and never will be the chosen one.

When Mark receives word out of the blue that a wealthy philanthropist wants to fly him out to his Pennsylvania estate for a meeting, he naturally assumes it’s too good to be true. But John du Pont (Steve Carell) means business: he wants Mark to train his own private stable of wrestlers under the brand Team Foxcatcher, named after the family’s thoroughbred stud farm lorded over by his domineering matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave). Seizing the opportunity to escape his brother’s shadow, Mark rebuilds himself at the Du Pont estate, so taken with this new lease of life that he’s more or less oblivious to his patron’s disquieting demeanour and erratic behaviour, finally beholding the darkness far too late as the interloping Dave, with wife (Sienna Miller) and kids in tow, supplants him on the team.

To the audience, however, it’s made abundantly clear throughout via an extraordinary performance by Steve Carell. Made up with a false nose, blotchy grey complexion and affected accent, the actor best known for his farcical comedies plays his version of John du Pont just the right side of ham, making for one of the most quietly menacing presences on screen since Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. Miller builds heart-stoppingly palpable tension in every scene with Carell’s increasingly volatile Du Pont, even if the end result is a foregone conclusion. In tandem with muted, austere cinematography by Greig Fraser, the director’s staging of this dreadful tragedy is strong enough to gloss over its weaknesses (the deliberately vague timeline results in some awkward temporal transitions, with the impression that some roles – most notably Miller’s – were hastily reduced in the cutting room).

Some will describe as a true-crime drama, writhing on the mat with obsession and psychopathy, but Foxcatcher is really a horror film, with John du Pont as its monster and the Schultz brothers as its victims – both figuratively and literally, as Mark Schultz would have you believe.

Foxcatcher opens nationwide on Friday January 9th

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