Beneath the uncomfortably awkward pauses in dialogue, and Steve Carrell's unrecognizable face, there's an even more unsettling truth that lies within FOXCATCHER. And it's not just the real-life drama about a wealthy egomaniac (played by Carrell) so obsessed with trying to prove he's more significant than his bank account that he dangerously manipulates an impressionable young athlete (played by Channing Tatum). It's that director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) was able to pull from Carrell and Tatum what
Now before you go in on how often I have doubted Tatum and Carrell's acting abilities in the past (admittedly, it's been consistent and I still stand by all of it), I want you to know that while Tatum particularly delivered an admirable portrayal of 1984 Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, I still think there are other actors who could have better fit the role had they had, say, the popularity Tatum clearly possesses. But, I digress. Miller did seemingly the impossible with a little known (at least to me) story that has stuck with me weeks after I've seen the film.
Miller draws us into the bleak, modest and solitary life of 27-year-old pro wrestler Mark Schultz -- on the outside a successful Olympian and role model (if only to a bunch of elementary school students seated in a mandatory class assembly), on the inside a rather soulless athlete who's seemingly qualified his entire life on the sport. Though Mark and his older brother Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo) were among the first pair of brothers in U.S. history to win Olympic titles, we learn in the film that Mark felt the need to get out of his brother's shadow and claim his own greatness, under the pseudo tutelage of the elusive multimillionaire -- and closeted lunatic -- John Eleuthère du Pont (Carrell).
Right off the bat, there's an air of crazy surrounding this du Pont character, at once masked behind Carrell's naturally benign appeal and also the several acres of Pennsylvania land on which he resides along with several handlers, a stable of horses and one perpetually disapproving mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave). Though, Miller is meticulous about distinguishing both du Pont and Mark's viewpoints, so it could very well be that du Pont's mother Jean was not as much disapproving as she was simply a regular finicky old woman. But this skewed technique adds layers to du Pont's character that in the wrong hands could have been seen as a purely a villain. Carrell takes the opportunity to portray du Pont as a vulnerable man whose only strength lies in his ability to exploit another's weakness for his own gain. By affecting a parental demeanor and a Dickens-like tone in his voice (you can tell he watched Capote several times), Carrell brings the type of pretentious charm needed to convince audiences that someone as obviously creepy as du Pont could effectively beguile a character as brute in his own right as Mark Schultz to join his "Team Foxcatcher."
Then we have Tatum, who's stripped (no pun intended) away his famous gigolo image to play a character dutifully blinded by his own ambition -- an easy prey for someone like du Pont. But while Tatum takes on a rather clunky walk (I described it in my notes as similar to Herman Munster) and slumped posture, he doesn't bring more emotion to the role than the bare minimum. We see that he's driven, a bit antisocial, whose relationship with his brother is similar to that between a father and son. But beyond that, we don't know how he feels, about anything. Which is strange because Mark goes through a lot under du Pont's control -- drug abuse, physical depletion and mental conditioning. Yet Tatum doesn't really provide much of a shift between phases. These things sort of just happened, and then they simply are no longer an issue for him. A more experienced actor would have allowed the audience to connect more with Mark as goes through these hard times. As a result, his portrayal of Mark is indistinct, hollow.
But perhaps this is intentional, to illustrate just how lost Mark was in this very crucial time in his career. Then again, someone who has far less screen than Tatum, Ruffalo shines as the protective barrier particularly once Mark falls under du Pont's spell. Though Dave meets his fate at the end of the film (in a gradual series of escalating events), Ruffalo embodies the complexities of a man who has to handle the pressure of being as much a father to his two small children as a world class wrestler/coach, and a guardian for his brother who loses his way. Ruffalo balances each of Dave's layers in varying degrees of intensity, particularly when he faces off against du Pont. In fact, some of the most tense scenes of the film are between Ruffalo and Carrell. Their conflict, intensified by du Pont's jealous rage over everything Dave stands for (success, happiness, influence over Mark), makes the film that more riveting to watch.
While the acting is mostly impressive, the ending of the film leaves much to be desired as screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's script simply flutters to a close without much of an impact. This is another case of when a movie should have ended five minutes earlier. du Pont's ending was so haunting that the film's tacked-on finale seems woefully misplaced. Plus, it leaves one vital question unanswered: How does Dave's murder affect Mark, both personally and professionally? If there had to be another scene after du Pont's capture, it should have took place in a domestic setting, not back in the ring. It's impersonal, and yanks the audience away from the crux of an otherwise captivating drama.
This is all to say that even with the issues I've mentioned, FOXCATCHER is one of the most gripping films I've seen this year -- as strange as it is seductive, down to Greg Fraiser's eerie cinematography. The journey toward each character's American dream deferred alone is worth the price of admission.
Rating: B- (*** out of *****)
FOXCATCHER is in theaters Friday.