I wish I had a time machine. That may be an odd way to start a review about a sombre true-crime drama, but my temporal fantasies has a purpose: I just wish I could see the look on the face of 2013-Me, when I tell myself that in 2015 I will watch a chilling, disturbing character study, steeped in themes of fraternity, wealthy privilege, self-delusion and the desperate scramble for self-worth, and that the highlights of this film will be Steve Carell and Channing Tatum turning in some of the finest, most emotionally nuanced dramatic performances of the year. Michael Scott and Magic Mike, you’ve certainly come far.
Based on the shocking events surrounding the murder of an US Olympic wrestling legend at the feeble hands of eccentric old-family billionaire John Du Pont (Carell), Foxcatcher tells a tale of finely ratcheting tension, as you know something dreadful is on the ever-darkening horizon, and you’re just waiting for the foreboding to become reality.
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a financially struggling ex-Olympic gold medalist, his skill on the wrestling mat far outstripping his charm, unlike his more successful and sociable older brother, fellow Olympic gold medalist Dave (Mark Ruffalo). When uber-wealthy chemical company heir and apparent wrestling fan Du Pont reaches out to Mark with an offer to bankroll the Schultz’s future wrestling ambitions, including training at Du Pont’s private Foxcatcher gym in preparation for both the next World Championship and 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the younger, more volatile Schultz jumps at the chance. But there are hidden, psychological strings attached to this deal that will see the trio caught up in a slowly immolating downward spiral of false promises and masked intentions.
Tatum is a revelation here, shirking off his pretty boy airhead persona to play a physically dominant but emotionally brittle young man, desperate to escape his older brother’s shadow. His Mark Schultz, composed of both crippling self-conflict and ferocious emotional outbursts, is easily the best performance of his career and definitive proof that he is more than just a set of abs with dance moves. But as good as Tatum is – and he is very good – it’s Carell that commands every scene. Like a walking, talking car wreck, it’s impossible to look away from this disturbing creation. With a hooked prosthetic proboscis and slippery, dead eyes, his John Du Pont boasts an angular awkwardness to his gait and a social discomfort that is almost pitiable. But as his psychological manipulations mount and more of his own psychoses are revealed, pity is replaced by dread and repugnance. It’s a wholly transformative performance – he simply is John Du Pont – and more than worthy of the awards buzz being thrown Carell’s way.
That’s not to say that the third member of this grim parable is lacking. No, Rufallo, ever the actor’s actor, bulked up and adopted a (pun not intended) hulking, supine posture to play famed wrestler Dave Schultz. He brings equal amounts easy-going charm and impressive physicality to the role and would probably have had more tongues wagging if it wasn’t for his co-stars’ scene-stealing showings.
Oscar-nominated helmer Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) directs with a subdued, austere manner – the film is almost devoid of a musical score – methodically peeling back the layers of these characters and their gathering psychopathy. It’s truly chilling stuff. The problem is that chilling, occasionally just becomes cold. Despite Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman playing loose and fast with the chronology and facts of what happened (film’s shocking finale actually occurred 8 years after everything else, unlike how it’s presented here) for dramatic effect, there are some patience-testing patches. As fascinating as the simmering, almost clinical buildup is to the inevitable breaking point, that detachment can lead to a lack of emotional engagement which could frustrate some viewers.
But then you get back to those incredible, richly textured lead performances. You may not identify with John Du Pont on an emotional level (or you may, in which case I advise you to seek professional help immediately), but you sure as hell can’t stop watching him. Decaying moral decadence and a fake nose has never been more enthralling.