It’s a very strange sensation, being scared by Steve Carell’s presence. After all, this is the man who spent years playing the dumb, lovable Michael Scott on The Office, and has dedicated almost his entire career to making audiences laugh. None of that matters when he’s on screen in Foxcatcher, as all you see is a damaged, imbalanced threat with the power and will to unravel those around him. It’s a powerful accomplishment for the actor – but what’s even more amazing is the fact that it’s only the second best performance in the film.
Directed by Bennett Miller, who last brought us the brilliant Moneyball in 2011, Foxcatcher has drawn the filmmaker back to the wide world of sports. This time he has produced a nail-biting thriller not only packed with dazzling performances, but also remarkable character dynamics and themes exploring the dark, poisonous side in the search for triumph. It’s all wrapped together within a terrifying true story about three men who all believe in the same thing –The American Dream – but who have very different interpretations of exactly what that means.
It begins with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Despite being an Olympic gold medal wrestler himself, Mark has always lived in the shadow of his famous older brother, David (Mark Ruffalo) – a man who has seemingly achieved the American Dream in both bringing victory to his nation and being part of a beautiful family, complete with a beautiful wife and wonderful children. What David has is what Mark desperately wants, and his opportunity to grab it seemingly falls right into his lap with the introduction of John du Pont (Steve Carell).
A member of the richest family in the country, the soft-spoken, unbalanced John comes from a much different upbringing than Mark and Dave, but his intentions are the same: to bring pride and glory back to America. His intention is to do this through the sport of wrestling and the training of a team to prepare for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea - and he believes that the key to his plan is enlisting Mark as the leader of Team Foxcatcher (named for Foxcatcher Farms, the Pennsylvania estate where John lives with his cold, disapproving mother, Jean, played by Vanessa Redgrave). Masked by his desire for patriotic pride, however, is John’s ultimate desire to become a mentor, a coach, a leader and a father – which really just means that he wants to exert control and hide his personal weakness. In Mark, he finds a perfect subject.
What plays out from there is a fascinating chess game of divided and shifting loyalties, as Mark is torn between the brother who raised him (and has been stealing the spotlight his whole life) and the strange benefactor who has offered to be the father he never had. It’s at times mesmerizing watching power and influence flow between the characters: Jean du Pont’s stoicism and distaste for wrestling leaves John feeling weakness and needing to manipulate Mark through David, which he can do thanks to a strained relationship between the brothers that he helped manifest. It’s a tremendous character-driven narrative, with credit belonging to Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman.
Steve Carell’s performance as John is an incredible, transformative turn – both in the change of his physicality and the way that audiences will see him in the future. But it’s Channing Tatum’s passionate and dangerously intense work that allows Foxcatcher to operate as phenomenally as it does. Between his parents divorcing when he was a kid, being forced to move around a lot when he was young, and having no friends outside of his legendary brother, Mark is completely racked with issues, and it’s actually scary to watch Tatum perform them to the depths that he does. Whenever the character feels defeated or low, his dangerously low self-esteem leads him to literally beat himself up, and it is hard to watch the actor in these moments – whether he’s using stiff fingers to jab at a facial bruise or smashing his head through a mirror. The degree to which Tatum has grown as an actor in the last few years is nothing short of astonishing, and Foxcatcher is far and away his greatest work to date.
Playing the character in the film with the least number of mental problems, Mark Ruffalo was given a tremendous challenge to standout in Foxcatcher, and it’s amazing to watch him just absolutely crush it. A full beard and large, ‘80s-style glasses can’t stop Ruffalo’s natural charisma and likable personality, and it’s key in establishing the deep and caring love that David has for his damaged little brother. At the same time, though, Ruffalo’s David is so great and so genuine that you also fully understand Mark Schultz’s inferiority complex.
Set against a cold, dark aesthetic with high contrast photography that really let the red, white and blues pop, Foxcatcher is a beautiful, deep, psychological thriller that comes together with fantastic performances as a film that is a powerful total package. At the very least, you’ll never look at its stars the same way again.