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Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher announces its intentions right from its opening moments. “I want to talk about America. And I want to tell you why I wrestle.” This first bit of dialogue, spoken by down-on-his-luck former Olympian Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to an auditorium of elementary school kids, clues us in right away to where the movie’s emphasis lies—this is a drama about America, complete with all the requisite markers of gravity and import; from the mournful piano-and-strings musical accompaniment to the grey, washed out cinematography. It’s also a movie that wrestles (pun intended) with themes of brotherhood, paternal longing, class, competition, and the drive for self-actualization.

The true-life story concerns Schultz and his relationship with Jon Du Pont (Steve Carrell) an eccentric millionaire who belongs to one of the wealthiest families in America. He summons Schultz to his family estate, which he looms over like a cross between Dracula and an aging Charles Foster Kane, and makes Schultz an offer he can’t refuse; to train and financially support him for his big comeback in the 1988 Olympics. Schultz is immediately enraptured by Du Pont and his vision of American greatness. Less easily persuaded to join Du Pont and train with his Team Foxcatcher, however, is Schultz’s brother and fellow Olympian, David (Mark Ruffalo), a content family man who’s settled comfortably out of the spotlight. The relationship between the three men eventually culminates in tragedy, as Du Pont’s loneliness, schizophrenia, and obsessions drive him into madness.

Despite the big themes being explored, Foxcatcher relies heavily on ambiguity and subtle rhythms rather than bombast. Director Miller, whose previous efforts include the similarly somber Capote and Moneyball (which also seemed weighed down by a strained seriousness even as it so entertained), does a bleakly efficient job realizing E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s tightly constructed screenplay. The real triumph, however, belongs to the three principle leads. Breaking away from the comedic and romantic roles that have since defined his success as leading man, Tatum brings a brooding physicality to the role of Mark, while the immensily talented Ruffalo, who I’ve always felt shines best in supporting roles, provides great brotherly chemistry in their scenes together. Playing against type, Carrell proves to be an actor of surprising depth and complexity. While a lesser actor may have allowed the character of Du Pont to slip into a sort of grotesque caricature, Carrell brings the lonely, tragic soul to life with a restrained performance of quiet sadness and desperation, especially in scenes involving Du Pont’s disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in one of the film’s few brief female roles), whose strained relationship with her son, the movie seems to suggest, was one of the defining reasons for Du Pont’s mental illness.

In the end, Foxcatcher is the kind of movie that will likely frustrate many, as it resists supplying a pat resolution or explanation for its character’s actions, and in particular its murderous dénouement. However, it’s this quality that I feel was the right approach to the material, and though the film wavers a bit in its ambitions towards “Great American Film” status, I felt the strength of the performances proves to be enough reason to recommend Foxcatcher for audiences looking for a respite from the more shallow blockbusters of the Holiday season.

Watch the trailer for Foxcatcher

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