A big hit at Cannes and likely to be one of this year’s awards season heavyweights, Foxcatcher is the true story of reclusive billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), who established a wrestling gym at his estate to train the United States team. He invited Olympic gold medallists Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) to coach the team.
Bennett Miller’s follow-up to the excellent Moneyball is in many ways a strange beast. Casting Brick Tamland as an odd, eccentric sports aficionado with a seemingly unhealthy relationship with his mother? Magic Mike as a quiet, cripplingly under-confident wrestler who struggles at establishing relationships with people? On paper, it sounds like it shouldn’t work, and yet it really does.
All three of the leads turn in award-worthy performances, and Carell is practically revelatory in how much he’s transformed to become du Pont. Much of this is due to the excellent make-up team, who have given him some truly awful teeth and a nose the size of a light aircraft. Considering that du Pont can easily be seen, particularly in the early scenes, as a comical figure in how inflated his ego is, it’s very impressive that Carell is able to play so consistently and compellingly against type.
Tatum gives perhaps the strongest performance however, and the one which best expresses the feeling of the film as a whole. Abandoning his Jump Street charm and charisma, his take on Mark Schultz is subdued and quiet: this is a man who struggles to express his emotions, but who, as we see after a wrestling match gone awry, has vast reserves of anger and pain beneath the surface, just waiting to boil over. His relationship with his brother is complicated, and Mark clearly resents Dave for overshadowing him, despite loving him deeply. It’s yet another example of how good an actor Tatum really is, and how far he’s come in the last few years.
The whole film is like Mark: subtle, buttoned-down, not flashy in the least. It’s the exact opposite of something like Whiplash, which is all about big, scenery-chewing performances and visually stunning directorial flourish. Foxcatcher is simply a work by craftsmen at the top of their game doing what they do very well indeed, without feeling the need to show off with it. The tagline on the poster is “Ambition. Power. Control”, and it’s that last which describes the film most aptly. Quiet performances, muted colour palette and minimal soundtrack all combine to create an oppressive atmosphere of unease, where even viewers who don’t know the ending will have the inescapable feeling that something horrible is going to happen from a few minutes in. It’s to the film’s credit that, even if you do know what happens in the end, how this all resolves itself is still truly shocking and horrifying.