Wrestling is the most solitary and elemental of sports: one man grappling another in intimate combat. Ice hockey, meanwhile, is pure teamwork, especially as played by the Red Army team in its dominant decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It follows that Foxcatcher, about a wrestler, his brother and their coach, is an investigation of men less comfortable in speaking than in expressing themselves through physical activity that can turn violent — and that the documentary Red Army, focusing on defenseman Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, brims with camaraderie: high spirits and a few verbal high sticks.
Thanks to its star cast of Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo and its director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), Foxcatcher was among the most eagerly anticipated selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Red Army, from first-timer Gabe Polsky, is simply one of the best.
On Jan. 26, 1996, John Éleuthère du Pont, scion of the gunpowder and chemicals fortune, shot and killed the wrestler Dave Schultz. Du Pont, 57, ran a wrestling school called Team Foxcatcher at his Newtown Square, Pa., estate, where Dave, 36, served as a coach. Dave’s brother Mark, 35, also lived and practiced at the estate. They are the only two brothers in U.S. wrestling history to win both Olympic and World championships.
Why did John kill Dave, whom he had treated as a friend and close colleague? Du Pont’s friends were baffled by a gentle man’s heinous eruption. At John’s trial, neither the prosecution nor the defense provided a reason. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but was convicted of third-degree murder, and died in 2010 in the Laurel Highlands State Correctional Facility in Somerset, Pa. He was 72.
Foxcatcher, from a screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, also declines to spell out a rationale. As Miller said at today’s press conference, his directorial style “is not so much telling a story as observing a story.” The movie, which saves the true story’s famous, fatal act of violence for the climax, is a murder mystery in which the killer’s motive remains a mystery. That makes Foxcatcher, for all its closeups of the main trio, a chilly, distant view of an enigma festering into an atrocity.
Truman Capote, as captured in Miller’s first feature by Philip Seymour Hoffman, was profligately articulate. Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s General Manager played in Moneyball by Brad Pitt, communicated clearly in words, stats and caroming body English. The Foxcatcher men have no such eloquence; Bennett describes their mode of discourse as “repressed male noncommunication.” John du Pont (Carell) may have been bred to reticence; raising one’s voice on the Foxcatcher estate was simply not done. As for the Schultzes, they articulate their fury, grudges and superb skills in their sport.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman)
A marvelous early scene shows Dave (Ruffalo) leading Mark (Tatum) in a warmup exercise — a series of embraces, pats, grips and flips that eventually draws blood — and all to make Dave a more formidable wrestler. Beautifully choreographed and performed, and revealing emotional vectors that the rest of the film withholds, the scene in the wrestling circle is equally a fraternal fight and a love match.
John (Carell) wants into that circle. An accomplished ornithologist who authored several academic studies on the birds of the South Pacific, he chafes in the imperious shadow of his mother (a wonderfully haughty Vanessa Redgrave) and the 32,000 trophies and ribbons she has amassed as an equestrienne and stable owner. John considers horses “dumb. They eat and shit. That’s all they do.” His mother’s take on wrestling: “A low sport.” Perhaps eager to compete in the sports arena, he founds Team Foxcatcher — his own stable, with manflesh replacing horseflesh — and collects wrestlers dependent on his largesse. (Wrestling and boxing are the only two Olympic sports requiring amateur standing of its participants. The athletes must take side jobs or find a patron.)
“I have a deep love for the sport of wrestling,” John tells Mark when he flies the young man East for an interview. Dave, with a wife (Sienna Miller) and young child, wants to stay put; and Mark feels stranded without his guide and sparring partner. But John dangles this promise: “Without your brother you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.” The movie portrays a rivalry between John and Dave, to be Mark’s mentors. Dave had played that role since he and his brothers were the children of a fractured family. Dave eventually brings his family to Foxcatcher, where he trains other wrestlers and, in the process, wrests from John the role of father figure.
Tatum’s Mark is a gentle galoot, so lacking in introspection that he seems not to understand his resentment as being John’s pawn; if he had taken revenge on his host, the killing would be as understandable as John’s shooting of Dave. And Ruffalo is fine as the more gregarious Schultz. Carell gives the big performance — in startle quotient, not in sweeping gestures or fuming arias, which he avoids.
(READ: Steven James Snyder on Channing Tatum in Magic Mike)
The nice-guy correspondent for The Daily Show, who graduated to star comedy roles in Evan Almighty and The 40 Year Old Virgin, and as the voice of Gru in the Despicable Me animated franchise, Carell has a melancholy suitable for lovable losers and, here, a lonely aristocrat. His delicate, creepy work occasionally obscured by a large prosthetic nose, he plays John as gray and graceless, an inert entity. John has repressed so many of his family anxieties, as well as his urges to watch muscular men wrestle for his pleasure, that he is nearly dead, emotionally, by the middle of the movie. Killing Mark may be the one way John has to prove he’s still alive.
Really, though, we have to guess at most of this, because Foxcatcher is almost as withholding as its characters. True to his directorial creed, Miller has acutely observed the collision of its three men’s temperaments. It remains for the viewer to tell, or guess at, the full story. —R.C.
More than any form of filmmaking, the documentary demands star quality — a charismatic force at its center to drive home the political or human message. Polsky, director of Red Army, found his star in Slava Fetisov, part of the legendary Green Line of the U.S.S.R. ice hockey team. During his 13 seasons, the Red Army squad won seven World Championships (out of a possible 10) and two Olympic gold medals, losing only in 1980 to the U.S. team in the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal game. Defying the Soviet hierarchy, he left Russia for North American to play for the National Hockey League, spurring an exodus of other Soviet and European stars to the NHL. Many of his fellow Russians joined him on the Detroit Red Wings, which in 1997 and 1998 won the Stanley Cup.
Those are just Fetisov’s statistics. The man is even more impressive: a dominant presence off the ice and in front of Polsky’s camera, whether declaring his political independence, misting up at the memory of his first coach or, when the mood strikes him, giving his director a middle-finger salute. At the evening screening of Red Army, Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux praised Fetisov as “this incredible actor, this character, this champion!” He is all of that in this exuberant, affecting film portrait, which could escape the niche of documentaries and become a popular attraction on the order of Searching for Sugar Man. The film has similar heart, humor and unbelievable-but-true narrative twists.
In the NHL, star players often skate freely toward the goal, a one-man show. In Soviet hockey, “The man with the puck is the servant of the other skaters.” Their coaches stressed teamwork, as developed in a decade of junior-league training, until the intricate weaving of the Green Line skaters approached the choreography of the Bolshoi Ballet or the chess mastery of Garry Kasparov. (One NHL announcer calls them “the Soviet Symphony.”) The long years of excruciating practice forged a comradeship, in the best sense, of Fetisov and his mates. Surviving the 1980 Lake Placid humiliation, and weathering disagreements that seemed like betrayals, the Green Liners were a band of brothers. Some of them reunited with Fetisov in the NHL years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Fetisov, who speaks excellent English from his decade in North America, is still a Russian at heart. He returned there, at the urging of Vladimir Putin served as Minister of Sport from 2002 to 2008. Fetisov deflects some of Polsky’s questions by saying, “I’m a politician now.” As a Soviet skater, he was also a political and social force: he and his team lifted the U.S.S.R. at a time when the West was the best at everything but hockey. As one Russian commentator notes, “The story of hockey is the story of our country.”
Ice hockey is not America’s story, and at the moment Russia is not the most popular foreign power. But this playful, poignant film presents a human story that transcends decades, borders and ideologies. —M.C.