Carell’s performance is main event in otherwise slow wrestling movie
Director Bennett Miller returns to the big screen this month with Foxcatcher, his first feature since 2011’s Moneyball. Like that film, Foxcatcher also draws its inspiration from a true-life sports story, but, ultimately, Foxcatcher is really more of a psychological character study. While it’s a compelling look at descending madness, the film proves itself a rather static, chilly narrative, albeit one with some exceptionally strong performances.
Based on the true story of Olympic gold medal winning wrestler brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz and their relationship with the millionaire John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to the Du Pont fortune, the film focuses on du Pont’s creation of the Foxcatcher wrestling team (named after his lavish Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher Farms). du Pont, who has Mark introduce him at a high-society event as an “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist,” was actually more of a dilettante, whose myriad interests included military weapons and, yes, wrestling.
du Pont invites Mark to his estate to train for the 1988 Olympics at du Pont’s state-of-the-art wrestling facility, and eventually also persuades Dave to bring his young family and join them as a coach. The tension builds slowly as loyalties shift and du Pont’s behavior becomes more erratic, leading to an unexpected, sharply rendered outcome. If you aren’t familiar with the true story of du Pont and the Schultz brothers, do yourself a favor and resist the temptation to read anything about them before seeing this film; this is the type of picture where going in cold will enhance your experience.
Carell, who began his transition away from playing warm and funny to cold and mean in last year’s The Way, Way Back continues to expand his dramatic range by playing downright creepy here. His performance alone is enough to recommend the movie; he does a masterful job of conveying a socially awkward, somewhat off-kilter man, whose odd tics increasingly begin to seem less like minor quirks, and more like signs of a deep-seated, frightening mental illness. Wearing heavy make-up, speaking with a curious, flat affect, and adopting a stiff, almost robotic gait, Carell expertly embodies du Pont’s mannered, mercurial strangeness.
The film not so subtly suggests that some of du Pont’s issues may be the result of his frosty relationship with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, effective in just a few brief scenes). Mama du Pont sniffs at her son’s interest in wrestling (“it’s a low sport,” she tells du Pont disdainfully, after spending only a few seconds watching him at work with his wrestlers, “and I don’t like to see you being low.”) For a man who desperately wants his icy, blue blood mother’s approval, such words are especially cutting. Suffice to say that John du Pont here could give Norman Bates a run for his money when it comes to disturbing, weird mother-son dynamics.
Set in the mid-1980s, the film does a nice job showing how du Pont has completely bought into the “it’s morning in America” idealistic conservatism of the Reagan era, which only underscores how deeply du Pont is hurt by maternal rejection. du Pont fancies himself a leader of men – he tells Mark to call him “Golden Eagle,” he dabbles in military equipment, and he emphasizes the promise of America’s greatness to all his athletes. du Pont tells his team he wants them to be “champions of sport, winners at life, and good citizens of America.” The tension, then, between how du Pont views himself and his mother’s mocking dismissal becomes unbearable in his mind.
Tatum and Ruffalo, too, turn in nuanced performances that balance well with Carell’s more over-the-top energy. Tatum plays Mark as taciturn almost to the point of catatonic in the opening scenes; we can sense his unhappiness and, like du Pont, his need for approval. Mark initially is drawn to du Pont because just as du Pont desperately wants his mother’s love, Mark, who has long been in his older brother Dave’s shadow, wants to be valued for his own accomplishments, and du Pont initially seems able to give Mark the respect and admiration he craves. As Mark is drawn more out of his shell by du Pont’s attention, Tatum allows us to see the personality and intelligence that have been tapped down by insecurity and fear. It’s a complex performance, and Tatum, who is often thought of as more of a romantic lead, shows remarkable range here.
As the more gregarious brother Dave, Ruffalo, too, imbues a conflicted character – he’s at first reluctant to join du Pont’s team – with shades of warmth and ambition that balance against each other honestly. A scene in which Dave has to speak glowingly of du Pont for a documentary, for example, is nicely played by Ruffalo, who lets us see that Dave wants to be truthful, but also knows well what’s expected of him. Ruffalo never lets this scene devolve into slapstick, but conveys Dave’s internal struggle with great skill and sensitivity.
But, ultimately, this is Carell’s movie, and anyone who appreciates fine character acting will not want to miss this performance. Miller won the best director award at Cannes this year, where the film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or. Tonally, the picture is a bit cold, with the narrative crawling along until the dénouement, so perhaps Cannes was rewarding Miller’s direction of Carell. Miller does indeed bring Carell to new dramatic heights, and the result is extraordinary.
Foxcatcher opens today at the AMC Metreon and Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco, and next Friday (11/28) at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.