The bulk of the awards season chatter for Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" has centered around the revelatory performances of stars Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. As the distorted mentor and mentee at the center of Miller's grimly compelling true-crime drama, both actors deliver transformative performances showcasing abilities beyond anything either has previously demonstrated.
Tatum portrays Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz, the wounded heart of the film's tragic tale. Despite his successes, Mark has spent his life in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a decorated wrestler. Good-natured and well-liked, Dave is a family man with a thriving career as a coach, whereas Mark is a lug who's grown jealous of everything his brother has. When Mark receives a call from eccentric millionaire John du Pont (Carell) offering to sponsor the wrestler's quest toward the 1988 Olympics, Mark jumps at the opportunity. Blinded by a need to finally be the special one, he moves onto the du Pont family estate at Foxcatcher Farms, where John has built a world-class training facility he hopes will function as home base for the national wrestling team. Things turn sour, however, once it becomes clear that du Pont sees Mark as means to get to his brother, who's a more natural fit to lead the team.
Carell's performance has been presented as a major departure from what audiences are used to seeing from the comedian, though in truth it's not far removed from his role as Michael Scott on "The Office." Like Scott, du Pont desires to be taken seriously as a leader, cluelessly setting himself up as mentor to men far beyond his capabilities. Viewing himself as a patriot doing his part to inspire America, he even asks to be referred to by his preferred nickname, "Golden Eagle." If the film tends to present du Pont as too obviously a nutjob, Carell underplays the part (even underneath layers of makeup) countering any sense of cartoonishness. Tatum's performance shows once again how underrated his abilities as an actor have been. He nails the physicality of the role while capably conveying the interior mindset of a man desperate to prove his worth. As good as Carell and Tatum both are, Mark Ruffalo is even better; his is the smaller role, but Dave is a fully-realized and sympathetic character.
With "Foxcatcher," director Bennett Miller has crafted a chilly film, both in aesthetic and mood. He's aided by the film's editing, which allows moments to hang for uncomfortable amounts of time, building a constant sense of dread. E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's script has significantly rearranged and condensed the timeline of events to present possible reasons for du Pont's actions, suggesting that a major motive was the desire to prove himself to a withering mother figure (Vanessa Redgrave). In depicting the deadly results of a poisonous cocktail of vanity, ambition, and ego, the film provides a haunting, twisted skewering of American exceptionalism.