Foxcatcher is cold, dry and deadly

Comedy stars Steve Carell and Channing Tatum go dark in this story of an insane billionaire and his human toys.

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum
The daily news contains the potential for a book or movie damn near every day; in every crime of passion, botched robbery and fraud allegation lies the kernel of a potentially incredible narrative story. If you read the short version of the story of John Eleuthère Du Pont, it’s a bizarre but not particularly far-fetched one: billionaire heir murders Olympic wrestler he was coaching. One assumes there’s some sort of jealousy or financial issue behind the act; one might assume (correctly) that Du Pont was mentally ill. What makes Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher stand out as more than just a prurient true-crime story is that it precisely avoids digging for the tabloid elements of its story. It’s a character study above all else, a film about a lonely and sick man who thinks he can buy living toys for himself and of the not-particularly-bright man who becomes a toy because he has no other option.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic wrestler who’s still coasting, three years later, on the glory of a gold medal won at the 1984 Olympics. It’s pretty obvious that the medal is just about the only thing Mark has going for himself. He stumbles through barely paid speaking engagements, eats instant Ramen by himself in a depressing home and trains every day with the goal of recapturing the glory of 1984. Mark lives in the shadow of his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a gregarious and charismatic family man who also has a gold medal from the 1984 Olympics. Things change when Mark is approached by John Du Pont (Steve Carell), a billionaire wrestling enthusiast who dreams of coaching his own wrestling team to the Olympics. Mark accepts to live on Du Pont’s estate, training every day with a coterie of other wrestlers, but it becomes clear that Du Pont actually wants the reluctant Dave to uproot his stable family life and is only using Mark as bait.

Ruffalo, Tatum, Miller & Carell
Ruffalo, Tatum, Miller & Carell

Foxcatcher is above all an actor’s film. Director Bennett Miller creates an atmosphere with a muted colour palette, hushed dialogue and deliberate silences. It’s about uncomfortable men in uncomfortable positions, facing the inevitable fact that they may never get what they want. Carell plays Du Pont as a muted eccentric, a manchild who wields pregnant pauses like he’s George S. Patton but actually comes across more like a demented Don Knotts. Carell is wearing a rather obvious prosthetic nose in the role; while it’s off-putting and rather ostentatious at first, Carell uses the physical hindrance of the role as a character trait, speaking in a reedy wheeze that further grounds the character. Du Pont is the adult equivalent of the kid torturing animals because he doesn’t have friends and his parents aren’t around; instead of blowing frogs up with a firecracker, he dangles money and fame in front of people who can do the things he physically wishes he could do.

Tatum’s cornered the market on portrayals of lumbering lunkheads in both drama and comedy, but he finds a melancholic centre to Mark that he’s never explored before. Mark isn’t just slow-witted and naive; he’s slow-witted, he knows it, and he knows he can’t do anything about it. Tatum’s performance is filled with the heartbreak of knowing your limitations and remaining powerless against them. It’s easy to hate on Tatum for his intensely dudebro presence in the world, but he’s proving to be a consistently underrated and underestimated actor. Few actors who fit the physical description of Mark Schultz could also find the soul behind the character, but Tatum pulls it off.

As strong as the performances are, Foxcatcher is hardly perfect. The dramatic restraint that Miller brought to his two previous efforts (Capote and Moneyball) almost reaches a breaking point here. The film is deliberately paced and quiet to the point of sometimes feeling dry (though it accomplishes the feat of being a film starring Steve Carell and the dude from Step Up that could feasibly be described as feeling ‘European,’ which is no mean feat) and drawn out, and there are aspects of the characters (like Du Pont’s stifling relationship with his mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave) that could probably benefit from some fleshing out. It’s a cold film by design, but a little warmth wouldn’t hurt. ■
Foxcatcher opens at Cinéma Excentris (3536 St-Laurent), Cineplex Forum (2313 Ste-Catherine W.) and Méga-Plex Sphèretech 14 (3500 Côte-Vertu) today, Friday, Dec. 19