When Olympic freestyle wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum) is hired by amateur athletics enthusiast billionaire John Du Pont (Carrell) to lead a team to international glory, it seems the opportunity of a lifetime. But once Mark’s brother Dave (Ruffalo) joins him, and as Du Pont’s behaviour grows increasingly odd, it becomes a life-changing experience in a very different way.
Steve Carell has done ‘serious’ before. In the otherwise breezy Little Miss Sunshine he was bearded and suicidal, while in the Anchorman films, he memorably essayed a tragic weatherman struggling desperately with his cripplingly limited intellect… Okay, so Steve Carell hasn’t really done ‘serious’ before. He’s dabbled. Yet, once you adjust to the ostentatiously prosthetic nose and starkly greyed hair, he proves a perfect fit for the deeply serious role of John Du Pont in the based-on-a-true-story tragedy Foxcatcher.
Perhaps it’s because, on one level, Du Pont could be seen as comical — in the ‘nervously snickering’ sense. When he insists that his freshly hired son-substitute Mark (Channing Tatum) call him by the self-appointed nickname ‘Eagle’, for example. Even though it must push against all his instincts, Carell never plays it for laughs. There is minimal motion in his body language and little emotion on the surface, though you sense a dark, broiling morass just beneath. It’s not hard to see why Carell’s been tipped for awards, just as Jonah Hill was for his performance in director Bennett Miller’s last film, Moneyball.
Miller certainly brings something out in his actors. Or should that be presses something down? Channing Tatum, as Mark Schultz, is required to neuter his ballsy frattish charm — less hunk, more lunk. And, as Mark’s older brother Dave, Mark Ruffalo has smoothed out all his likable nebbish tics to portray a bulked-up, balding family guy whose heavy-set normality belies a mental keenness. Sienna Miller, too, benefits from the Bennett Miller treatment, dowdied down so far as Dave’s wife, it takes several scenes to even recognise her.
The connection between the three men is a lack of connectivity. Foxcatcher is essentially a story of males who don’t know how to emotionally express themselves — or even, to some extent, verbally. In the first scene between the two brothers they barely say a word to each other; we’re not even sure they get on. They just wrestle. Miller clearly savours the deliciousness of this irony: guys who get intensely, physically close, pressing together, hugging and hurling each other, but who prove incapable of having a meaningful conversation. Carell’s Du Pont, meanwhile, can’t even express himself through the sport. Despite all his money and influence and pretensions as “coach” to this purchased blue-collar family unit, he is the perpetual outsider.
None of which makes for particularly easy, or comfortable, viewing. Moneyball presented a flip-side view of the sports movie; Foxcatcher to some extent provides the genre’s dark side. It doesn’t have a Brad Pitt to charm it up, and Miller keeps the mood autumnal, the skies grey, the pace slow. But he has such a way with actors that, for all your disquiet, you remain absorbed throughout.
Another dramatic triumph for Bennett Miller, though it is his toughest and least glamorous outing yet. A sad and horrible story, expertly and compellingly told.