Steve Carell goes deep into character in “Foxcatcher,” emerging on the other side as a prosthetic-nosed, bad-postured Steve Carell.
It is hard to say if “Foxcatcher” would be less dreary had Carell been able to render his character – the late real-life chemical heir John du Pont – as more flesh and blood and less a collection of makeup and mannerisms.
It might have, since Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo lend believable humanity to their characters, brothers and 1984 Olympic wrestling gold medalists Mark and David Schultz, and director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) gives the film a steady air of unease and sometimes of suspense, even though anyone who’s heard of du Pont knows how it will end.
Yet too much of the movie, which details du Pont’s relationships to the Schultzes without providing larger sociological context, rests on Carell for its successful elements to compensate fully.
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The air of danger – or perhaps its mystery, or intrigue – the film wants to impose on du Pont does not exist in Carell’s performance. Wearing a large, prosthetic nose, his neck shrinking, turtlelike, into his shoulders, Carell seems benignly odd when he’s not unreadable.
The posture approximates the real du Pont’s, as does Carell’s halting speech. The actor’s seeming focus on impersonating du Pont appears to have detracted from the construction of an inner life for his character.
Tatum, thankfully, holds up his end of the film’s central relationship, between Mark and his benefactor. Tatum invests his character with palpable loneliness. This loneliness seems to abate after du Pont, a niche-sports enthusiast gathering a world-class wrestling team to train at his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher Farms, shows confidence in Mark.
The film opens in 1987. Three years after winning gold, Mark lives in a dumpy apartment in Wisconsin. He’s training for the Seoul Olympics at the college where Dave coaches, but lacks a gig himself.
Long overshadowed by Dave, the bigger wrestling star, Mark subs for his elder brother at a grammar school speaking gig. After picking up his paltry check, he scarfs a fast-food burger alone in his car. It’s the saddest scene involving fast food since the one with Miles and the ’61 Cheval Blanc in “Sideways.”
Tatum exploits his athletic build in the film’s wrestling scenes, in which he and Ruffalo seem well-versed in the sport’s moves. Tatum also puts his impressive physicality to use in showing Mark’s awkwardness in the world. On the mat, he’s a natural. Off it, he is bowl-legged and hulking. The likable, puppyish quality Tatum brings to most comedic roles is not apparent here.
Mark is not particularly likable. But Tatum makes him deeply sympathetic. Mark’s near-constant wounded expression lightens when du Pont makes him feel special in his own right, and not just like Dave’s plus-one in the wrestling world.
At film’s start, Dave is Mark’s lifeline and seemingly, only friend. But Dave has a family, a job and a busy life. When a du Pont associate calls Mark out of the blue to ask if he will fly to Pennsylvania to meet du Pont, Mark has little to lose.
Once there, Mark is a ruffian amidst chintz, surrounded by du Pont family portraits and trophies won by du Pont’s mother’s (Vanessa Redgrave, commanding in a tiny role) world-class horses. The house is part home, part museum.
Miller shot part of “Foxcatcher” on large estates like du Pont’s. As hard as it is to make such places look drab, Miller does it. Though the lawns are green and seem to go on forever, the sky often is overcast, and Miller’s camera favors shadow over radiance even when the sun shines.
But where the audience sees the du Pont mansion as stifling, Mark sees splendor and opportunity. He looks past the obvious just as he looks past his patron’s glaring weirdness, focusing instead on how du Pont says Mark is a great wrestler.
Miller and production designer Jess Conchor expertly use location as manifestations of mind-set. The film’s most welcoming setting is a small hotel room shared by Dave, his wife and their boisterous children while at a tournament.
Mark, on the periphery of this family unit, stays near the room’s edge. Du Pont, to whom Mark is introducing Dave in the scene, stays even closer to the door. The cozy family scene is too much for an isolated figure who lives amid acres of house and land.
Mark is upset that Dave, who initially declines du Pont’s invitation, via Mark, to train at Foxcatcher (he later accepts), does not try harder to engage du Pont. Despite this tension – which, like most of the film’s tension, comes from the brothers’ relationship rather than from du Pont – the audience is reluctant to leave its welcome air of normalcy.
Exuding warmth and good humor, Ruffalo gives a memorable performance as the friendly, self-confident Dave. Though not among his best performances, this one makes a strong impact anyway because his every appearance provides relief from the increasingly weird Mark-du Pont dynamic.
Mark and du Pont seem co-dependent from the moment Mark arrives at the farm. Though he’s bankrolling Mark’s training, du Pont, who fancies himself an amateur grappler, disrupts Mark’s routine by awakening him in the wee hours for a one-on-one practice session. (The film is noncommittal about du Pont having a sexual interest in Mark, but the midnight wrestling suggests one.)
Mark, starved for direction as well as affection, finds a philosophical role model in du Pont. The chemical heir is a self-styled patriot who tells Mark he believes Olympic athletes stand for what is still great about a declining America. To Mark, still in search of the American dream after failing to achieve it through Olympic gold, du Pont’s blather sounds profound.
At moments, “Foxcatcher” positions the Mark-du Pont relationship as a microcosm of political extremists’ M.O. of enlisting vulnerable, disappointed people with promises of empowerment. But this element never is explored fully.
“Foxcatcher” does not invoke ideas beyond the real-life story of du Pont and the Schultzes, thus depressing its audience without offering any compensating lessons. At the end of “Foxcatcher” the question is not such much whether Miller captured the true-life story, but whether he should have brought that story to the screen at all.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo
Director: Bennett Miller
Rated R (some drug use and a scene of violence)