Foxcatcher starts and ends with a fight. It is Channing Tatum – he of G.I Joe and Magic Mike fame – that opens and closes the latest film from Moneyball director Bennett Miller. Not Steve Carell, in impressive prosthetics exuding an intangible darkness, nor the reassuring Mark Ruffalo with his easy charm and affability that enamours audiences to him almost immediately. Channing Tatum, sullen and moody and a whole different creature to the lovable clown from his last release, comedy sequel 22 Jump Street.
Those that have heard of Foxcatcher will undoubtedly have seen the photographs of Steve Carell, unrecognisable with a beak nose and unflatteringly grey haircut, but the film is as much about the former wrestling Olympic champion brothers Mark and Dave Schultz as it is the schizophrenic millionaire John DuPont who murdered one of them, and it is this triadic focus that makes the film quite unlike any other true crime drama released in recent years.
From the get-go we are inducted into a world where men don’t talk about their feelings. A world where men are professional fighters; where every conversation is as much about what’s not being said as what is. Tatum’s character, the naïve Mark Schultz, is summoned to the impressive Foxcatcher Farms estate by the peculiar John DuPont who refers to himself as ‘The Eagle’ and encourages others to do the same. His offer seems harmless enough; he wants to coach an Olympic wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics, with champions Mark and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo on fine form) at the helm. Of course things are never that simple, and what follows is a meandering study in the human psyche, a slow-burn of tensions that only reaches its catastrophic conclusion in its dying breaths.
“Once all the make-up went on, people reacted differently on set. […] I stayed in character because I didn’t have a choice – no one wanted to talk to me.”
Speaking at the UK press conference, Carell gave insight into his transformation into DuPont; “Once all the make-up went on, people reacted differently on set. […] I stayed in character because I didn’t have a choice – no one wanted to talk to me.” Sure enough John DuPont is a man who sets others on edge, the kind of guy who makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up for no reason in particular. The choice to cast Carell, an actor mostly known for his work in family-friendly comedies such as Evan Almighty or The U.S Office, came down to his ability to instil in audiences “Some kind of belief that the situation is benign”- that DuPont – strange, eccentric DuPont – was, at his core, harmless. “Everything I learned about DuPont suggested that people underestimated what was inside of him” added Carell- and certainly the film relies on the tensions between the assumptions we make about people versus the reality.
Foxcatcher does not offer easy answers. It is a film that refuses to fit its characters into neat boxes as heroes or villains, instead hinting at the shades of grey that are present in every code of morality. It is an uncomfortable watch, one that sees audiences drawn into a world that seems staged yet at the same all too real, and leaves them with plenty to think on by the time the credits role. Some critics have complained that the film does not do enough to explain DuPont’s mental state or that the film’s conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, but it is the chaotic final act that shows the true extent to which DuPont’s psychosis has grown, hinted at in glimpses, such as his obsession with controlling his self-image.
Praise is undeniably due to Carell for his startling turn which solidifies him as a highly underrated dramatic talent, his performance as nuanced as that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman gave in Miller’s debute film Capote. Yet Channing Tatum is also proving one to watch, having escaped the Nicolas Sparks material of his past and perhaps taken some tips from the Matthew McConaughey school of career progression. His portrayal of a vulnerable young man unravelling at the hands of an equally unstable mentor is truly compelling. Mark Ruffalo provides the voice of reason as the grounded Dave Schultz who is at the centre of the tragedy; a likable, affable fellow, looking out for his family and arguably where the film’s moral centre lies.
Carell is already being tipped for an Academy Award nomination, though the man himself remained philosophical on the subject. “You can’t give stuff like that too much credence,” he said of the impeding Oscar buzz. Considering his standout performance in indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine went largely unnoticed, fans of Carell might be right in thinking this is finally the actor’s time to shine.
The film is every bit as visually rich as its predecessors Capote and Moneyball, cementing Miller as one of the most promising young directors working today, but Foxcatcher also presents audiences with something new: an intense, unflinching glimpse into the heart of darkness; one unexplainable violent act that can be reasoned for a lifetime, but in the end, may always remain a mystery, and perhaps it’s that truth that leaves audiences so stunned.
Foxcatcher is due in cinemas later this year.
Image: Sony Picture Classics