When you first start wrestling in high school, if indeed you start wrestling at all, one of the first concepts you learn is sparring. You and a wrestler of comparable size circle, take turns practicing basic moves. When the other wrestler is practicing a move, you need to provide resistance- need to give him some idea of whether his form will hold under pressure- but you need to let up enough to let him complete it. If there’s something wrong with his form, you need to let him know by escaping or reversing the move, so he sees the effect his mistakes have. You practically never speak to indicate these problems, or even to determine whose turn it is- one of you goes, the other follows. Eventually you reach an understanding.
Sparring is important to wrestling because it introduces a fundamental truth of the sport: the most important signals you receive are the ones you feel. Wrestlers express themselves through body language, and the greatest achievement of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is how it understands this, and makes its audience understand it. An early scene between Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, as brothers Mark and David Schultz, shows the two sparring for about two minutes, and tells us everything we need to know about both characters without any dialogue. Tatum is brutal, relentless, punishing his opponent’s neck with blows, driving him backwards, trying to overwhelm him with physical superiority. Ruffalo takes the punishment and uses his opponent’s aggression against him. It’s not a trick so much as a refusal to be cowed by outward displays of dominance. It almost goes without saying that Ruffalo is the older brother.
The physical acting displayed by both actors is astonishing in its craftsmanship. Both get the movement of wrestlers right, the simian lope to which they default when they hit the mat, the way they’ll occasionally go through the motions of a double-leg takedown when walking across an area with sufficient space, the way that when talking with fellow wrestlers, they will emphasize their points by touching them on the shoulders, neck, and arms, like a more intimate version of gesturing. They capture the shared physical vocabulary that all serious wrestlers pick up from going through the same motions thousands of times. In my four years of high school wrestling, I went to one summer wrestling camp. Campers spent nine hours a day working out. After three days, I was falling out of bed because my body kept trying to do double-leg takedowns while I was asleep. People who are serious about the sport go to several such camps every year.
Foxcatcher has a lot of Big Important Movie window-dressing about values and America and capitalism, and if you follow it scene to scene, you’ll find a tidy little film about how the poison pill of American exceptionalism finds fertile soil in an unhinged mind insulated by untold privilege. And that movie’s there, and it’s sure to garner polite applause from all the right audiences, many of whom will draw special attention to the care with which Miller shoots natural landscapes. But what really stood out to me, as a moviegoer and former wrestler, was how the film pays attention to touch, to the physicality of its characters. None of them are particularly eloquent, but the way Tatum and Ruffalo are able to communicate pain, anger, love, and despair through their physical interactions bespeaks a deeper fraternal bond than language can satisfy.
Placed opposite them in the movie’s scheme is Steve Carrell’s John DuPont, silently desperate for such a bond and forever kept apart from one. Carrell plays Dupont as an alien to his own skin, walled off from normal human relationships by his money and upbringing, approaching people as though he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. As an actor whose characters often have silent undercurrents of neediness, Carrell was a brilliant choice for the role. Here, the undercurrents are so strong that you can feel the other characters preemptively pulling away, which of course makes DuPont even more desperate. It’s not all squirm, either, as some genuine comedy arises from DuPont’s remoteness. “Stop calling me ‘sir.’ I consider you my friend, and all my friends call me Eagle or Golden Eagle… or John.” A line like that positively begs for Steve Carrell to read it, and the actor adopts body language that contrasts with the brothers’ physicality: the stillness, the consistent upward tilt of his head, the way he regards everyone as though he is looking at them from a great distance. He seems barely capable of conceiving of personal relationships, and when he learns that someone “can’t be bought,” says “huh,” as though he is being introduced to a new but largely untroubling concept.
A great deal of the movie’s middle part involves Carrell trying to insinuate himself into the wrestling world, by funding a team and naming himself the coach (his assistants do all the work, unless his mother stops by to watch), and later by wrestling himself, in an event that may or may not be staged for his benefit (and which he may or may not realize is staged for his benefit). As he continues to talk about leading men and instilling them with values, we begin to feel more and more sorry for him: here is a man who wants to be self-reliant, but never had that luxury because he was given every other one from birth. He wants to instill values, but seems to have gotten his own from a vague sense of discontent filtered through patriotic pabulum. The film’s developing action hinges on the character’s own awareness of his real state, and as it went on, I found myself increasingly wondering about the lawyers, manservants, and groundskeepers that manage every aspect of DuPont’s life: have they identified with their boss so much that his desires have become their own? Or do they realize that it’s a good job working for the richest family in America, and go along with whatever will allow them to keep it?
The movie’s final scenes are at once its bid for importance and an admission of its ephemerality. There’s a scene set at an early UFC-style cage match that tries to convince us that the movie is a commentary on America’s obsession with athletics, with winning, with “values” that always remain flexible enough to be universally palatable (and thus no values at all). And then there’s the black screen with white text, telling us what happened to all the characters. It’s a disastrous bit of playing to audience expectations, and feels like both parts were brought in from a much worse movie. Better to leave with the image of Carrell sitting alone in a room, watching himself on a video that he commissioned, a modern Midas so encrusted in gold and privilege that he can’t ever reach out and touch anything.