Opening Friday

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson famously said. In director Bennett Miller’s FOXCATCHER, based on a true story, that indictment applies to an egotistical, elitist eccentric named John E. du Pont.

Although his inherited fortune originated in ammunitions dealings, du Pont (portrayed with reptilian eeriness by Steve Carell) identifies himself as an “ornithologist, philatelist and philanthropist.” He tries to peddle the latter role as altruism in the service of his country. Instead of his real middle name, Eleuthère, he introduces himself on several occasions as John “Eagle” du Pont, and is announced before speaking engagements as the “Golden Eagle of America.”

Taking 1984 Olympic gold medal champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, sublimely understated) and the rest of the USA Wrestling team under his wealthy wing, du Pont starts a wrestling camp on his family’s titular Pennsylvania estate, situated just beyond the horizon of Valley Forge. There, he presides over the team like a lanista lording over his gladiators.

Before being lured into du Pont’s orbit, Mark lives on a diet of ramen noodles in a ramshackle apartment in Wisconsin. He parlays his gold medal into $20 speaking engagements at elementary schools, paid with checks administrators reluctantly cut after they discover that Mark isn’t his more popular older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champion.

At first blush, Foxcatcher conjures a fractured American dream: Mark, the unappreciated and discarded patriot, and du Pont, the wealthy parasite preying on the 99 percent to inflate his social standing and self-importance. But that only scratches the surface of what is, at its essence, a study of human frailty and obsession.

Du Pont’s stable of wrestlers is his answer to the sport horses owned by his domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who views wrestling as a “low sport.” Their conversations involve such tedium as which trophies are worthy of the “Rosemont Room.” Du Pont recounts how his mother paid her chauffeur’s son to be du Pont’s only childhood friend. With his taxidermy collection, mommy issues and other lurking demons, he resembles a blue-blooded Norman Bates.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Mark and Davewho acts as Mark’s traineris established early on during a tense morning training session, which captures Mark’s jealousy and Dave’s brotherly love without a word of dialogue. Mark admires his brother, but at the same time, he is deeply envious of Dave’s personal and professional success.

Mark and du Pont see each other as surrogate siblings, or even as replacement father and son. There are also homoerotic undertones. Nevertheless, their deep personal bond eventually runs up against their caste differences, and when du Pont finally entices Dave to head Team Foxcatcher in Mark’s stead, it triggers an ultimately tragic downward spiral.

The film is part reportage, part melodrama, and its Jungian archetypes stand out in sharp relief against a nationalistic backdrop, aided by the trio of terrific lead performances. The chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” filling the final frame are a cruelly ironic punchline: patriotism as the last refuge of the fanatic.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Far from haven”