Loose with the Truth

‘Foxcatcher,’ is a sneaky suspense thriller that you don’t expect even if you know how the movie ends

Time is a jagged line in "Foxcatcher" but the chronology of events is shoved into the background by their scandalous nature. The new film by director Bennett Miller ("Moneyball," "Capote") rocketed up the must-see lists after wowing the audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, but that hullabaloo has started to dissolve. Its slide may have a lot to do with increased competition at the end of the year, but it's hard to side-step the fact that the story as it's shown in the film didn't happen that way in real life.

The central figures and actions are accurate to a point. Millionaire heir John DuPont (Steve Carell) really did run a wrestling facility on his sprawling Foxcatcher Farm, and wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) did work with him, though not at the same time. And there was definitely some foul play on the premises. But almost nothing else of consequence fits as neatly in real life as it does a movie narrative.

The ultimate decision about whether or not it's also foul play to present events that unfolded over roughly a decade as occurring over a couple years is your own. Movies play loose with the truth all the time, of course, but rarely so much in a story with so few pivotal characters.

DuPont would seem an odd choice to advocate amateur wrestling so intently. He had only wrestled briefly, in high school, and was an incredibly wealthy man who had published books on ornithology. But he was obsessed with guiding U.S. wrestlers to Olympic gold, and recruited Mark then Dave to help him achieve that goal.

"Foxcatcher" focuses its energy on the DuPont-Mark relationship, casting the young wrestler as emotionally adrift and a bit directionless. DuPont, filling something of a paternal role, plies the younger man with a place to live, money and cocaine, all to encourage greater performances on the mat. With Mark slipping instead of gaining, DuPont brings in older brother Dave, who sort of runs the activities at Foxcatcher while DuPont takes the glory.

Among the Cannes chatter from this film was the performance by Steve Carell. He's good, sure. But that's largely a byproduct of John DuPont simply being a much different character than a virgin, a preposterously stupid weatherman and the world's most tone-deaf boss. It's hard to say Carell really leaves his mark on the character but rather that he's careful to capture DuPont's mannerisms. Channing Tatum is fine, but his charisma—what lifts his work in "Magic Mike" and the "Jump Street" movies—is deadened here. Mark Ruffalo is definitely worth seeing, however. He's done such good, understated work for so long, in the service of both solid and soft films, that it's high time he gets the recognition he's been earning for years.

Removing this version of events from the real story, "Foxcatcher" is a compelling, tense thriller. The suspense is very sneaky, but you always kind of feel its breath on your neck. Remarkably enough, that's still true even if you know how the film is going to end (and you probably did long before reading this review). The real question for Bennett Miller is, would the movie had remained this tightly spun if the pieces actually fell together the way he presents them. Probably not. But does that matter to you?

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