Steve Carell can add sociopathic multimillionaire to his growing list of characters that make you completely forget Michael Scott. Carell’s darkest role to date comes from Foxcatcher, the newest film from Capote director Bennett Miller, one of the best dramas to come out in 2014. Miller sets the perfect tone for this tale about delusion, loyalty, and living in somebody’s shadow.
Based on a true story that took place in the late 1980s, Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, an Olympic Gold Medal-winning wrestler, trying to live up to the legacy of his older brother Dave (played with a quiet conviction by the remarkable Mark Ruffalo). Out of the blue, Mark receives a telephone call from a person representing a millionaire named John du Pont, requesting Mark’s presence at du Pont’s home at Foxcatcher Farms in Pennsylvania. Intrigued, Mark is flown to Pennsylvania, and is asked to train with du Pont for the upcoming World Championships and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont, an amateur wrestler and wrestling enthusiast, is to be his coach.
Du Pont wants Mark, but more than anything he wants Dave to join his team, as well. Dave, a married man and father of two, has no intention of uprooting his family, and du Pont must settle for Mark alone. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear that John du Pont is an unstable man, and his motives for having Mark (along with a small team of wrestlers that Mark managed to wrangle) at his remote Pennsylvania training facility are mostly to feed du Pont’s delusional view of himself and to prove to his mother that he can be somebody. That he can add some trophies to the family trophy room.
Steve Carell’s portrayal of John du Pont is transformative. There are times throughout the film that you completely forget you are watching a primarily comedic actor. I mentioned before that you completely forget Michael Scott, the role that Carell made famous on the popular sitcom The Office. The interesting thing, however, is that John du Pont is actually not too far off from Michael Scott. Both characters see themselves through a warped sense of reality and have no real grasp on how the outside world operates. That being said, Carell’s du Pont is chilling, even seductive at times, and ultimately shockingly sympathetic. We see how much he wants to be loved by his mother, and how hard he tries to matter. At first, when Mark Schultz first meets the millionaire in the aforementioned du Pont Trophy Room, we are taken in by his charm and his rhetoric. We want to believe that what he is telling Mark is the truth and can be taken at face value. He lives in a world in such opposition to Mark’s world, and he seems to have the answers. As du Pont’s inner demons become more and more obvious as the film progresses, and as du Pont’s version of reality becomes clear to us (although not necessarily clear to Mark) as utterly distorted, Carell’s honesty and commitment to the role keeps us watching, and scares us to death.
Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo also deliver stunning performances. Tatum has really elevated himself to a level of dramatic competency that few people would have expected after getting his start in the Step Up franchise, along with a slew of forgettable teen-driven comedies. After Magic Mike and the Jump Street series, Tatum really shows that he has serious dramatic chops as the tragically flawed wrestler Mark Schultz. Our hearts break as we watch him go deeper and deeper into self-destruction, as his allegiances shift so dramatically from his older brother to his new sociopathic mentor. Mark Ruffalo, who has been delivering outstanding performances for well over a decade, brings such warmth and love to Dave Schultz. He loves his family and he loves his brother more than anything else in the world, and it is difficult watching him see his brother go down such a dark path. Dave Schultz is essentially the audience’s perspective in the film. He is intelligent, has a good head on his shoulders, and knows that there is something going on with his brother. Ruffalo brings such a rich history to their relationship, shown in the way that they hug and the way that they train and the way that Dave helps Mark when he needs it the most. There is a scene in which Dave sits in front of a camera for a documentary about John du Pont as wrestling coach (produced by du Pont himself) and Dave must tell the camera that du Pont is a mentor to him. The acting that Ruffalo does in this scene alone will leave an impression on you that is sure to last. There will invariably be some Academy Award Nominations for the performances in this film.
Along with the acting, Bennett Miller does an incredible job behind the camera. Miller is quickly becoming the authority in movies based on true stories. In just his third movie as director, following the 2005 film Capote and the 2011 film Moneyball (he also directed the 1998 documentary The Cruise), his command of tone and storytelling is on display once again in Foxcatcher. He sets up the world of Mark Schultz so well and so subtly, with the camera angles he uses as we watch Mark stuff his face with ramen noodles and cheap hamburgers, and the way that he shows the contrast in the lush but dreadfully cold world of John du Pont is extraordinarily effective. It will be very exciting to see where he goes in his career from here.
Foxcatcher is a smart, emotional, and heart-wrenching look at two of the most decorated wrestlers in history, and the delusional man who came between them. See it for the performances and see it for the master course in filmmaking. See it as soon as you can. This haunting film will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.
Movie Review by Mike Danner