'Foxcatcher' at Cannes: A du Pont Greek tragedy

Steve Carell takes a decidedly unfunny turn as John du Pont in "Foxcatcher."
Steve Carell takes a decidedly unfunny turn as John du Pont in "Foxcatcher." (Sony Pictures Classics)
Posted: May 23, 2014

CANNES, France - In retelling the sad, crazy murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz by chemical-fortune scion John du Pont 18 years ago, Bennett Miller has delivered a rare American film in Foxcatcher. It's his fourth directorial project, and his first to play in competition at Cannes, emerging from its festival premiere this week as Oscar bait.

Foxcatcher - named for du Pont's 800-acre suburban Philadelphia estate, the scene of terror on a cold January day in 1996 - is a study in young, middle-class talent imported like big game into the state-of-the-art wrestling preserve of an old-money maniac. Miller layers character and class (high and low) in exploring the underside of the amateur-sports culture. That's where the film's star, and one of its biggest surprises, lurks: comic actor Steve Carell, making a major career pivot with a prosthetic nose and creepily du Pontian manner.

The first question at the news conference here: Did Miller have contact with the storied industrial family? "A little before we started shooting," he replied. "No contact since."

The director, who is 47, originally wanted to film Foxcatcher "out in Newtown Square," the actual locale, he said. "But circumstances pushed us to Pittsburgh." Later, he said he got better labor contracts there than he could have in Philadelphia.

"We got lucky" in Pittsburgh, he said. "Another family - I'm not permitted to say which, but a du Pont-type family in terms of history and wealth - invited us onto their 17,000-acre estate and horse ranch, which had an amazing resemblance to Foxcatcher Farm."

Foxcatcher, to be released in the United States in November, was financed in part by producer Megan Ellison, bankroller of American Hustle and Zero Dark Thirty and daughter of Oracle chief executive officer Larry Ellison. Without her, "This film wouldn't be made," said Miller, who also directed Capote and Moneyball. "I tried for years. My first pass at it was eight years ago, and . . . believe me, I did the rounds."

The moment is seared into the collective Philadelphia memory: Du Pont inexplicably drives his silver Lincoln Town Car across his estate, stops at the house where Dave Schultz is repairing a car radio, takes out a revolver, and shoots him three times. At the time, Schultz, 36, was a former Olympic gold medalist in need of a comeback, and who better to gild the dream than du Pont, amateur wrestling's most ardent supporter? Schultz was the star among all who trained for world meets as Team Foxcatcher at the five-star Foxcatcher National Training Center.

Mark Ruffalo plays the murdered wrestler. Following the screening, the actor called the film, rightly, a Greek tragedy. "It's about how really talented people can't do what they do best in the world unless they can figure out how to monetize it," Ruffalo said. "But it costs them."

Channing Tatum is Mark Schultz, also an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, who labored in his older brother's shadow and found in du Pont a soothing psychological touch. Airlifting him from a threadbare Oklahoma bachelor pad, du Pont shows him his private library, all red and cream, leather books and Americana. The rules are simple, his secretary explains to Mark: "Don't go near Mrs. du Pont," John's mother, "[her champion] horses, or the house, unless summoned."

Feeling good about his mentorship, du Pont writes Mark a $10,000 bonus check. It's time, he says in a therapist's tones, to step outside Dave's shadow. Since he now considers them friends, he tells Mark, "You can call me 'Eagle.' Or 'Golden Eagle.' " "John" is the third option. (That got a big laugh at the screening.)

Miller has kept the story, cowritten by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, as gray and cool as the overcast color palette, everything controlled, even calm. Usually.

To celebrate a Team Foxcatcher triumph at a world wrestling meet, du Pont pops champagne, then deliriously throws himself at the team's legs, tackling them in a sequence of homoerotic glee.

Miller is nothing if not a composed auteur, gliding up to the edge of what you are willing to see.

When Mark Schultz finally relaxes enough as team leader to give the other boys the morning off, Golden Eagle slaps him. "You ungrateful ape. I made such a mistake bringing you here," du Pont says slowly, surveying him down the long barrel of his nose, which Carell says isn't as big as du Pont's, but effectively condescending nonetheless.

Vanessa Redgrave hovers as Jean du Pont, John's mother, protective of the space occupied by some of the 32,000 medals won by her show horses. John requests some room in the trophy case for a few medals.

"It's such a lowwww sport," she says of wrestling, summoning all the Redgrave hauteur to bear on John. Owning men is so much less elevating than horses.

Du Pont, who died in prison in 2010 at age 72, was an eccentric's eccentric. His Army tank, in which he tooled around the estate, makes a brief appearance. But missing are his claims that trees moved, that horses were sending messages from Mars, that he had to blow up a den of fox cubs, that he paid the squad to wrestle ghosts in the attic. All would have altered the tone and time of the 130-minute movie, which Sony Pictures Classics will take to a few more high-profile festivals before bringing it home.

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