In theaters Nov. 14.
4 stars (out of 4 stars)
In an alternate universe, Channing Tatum and Steve Carell co-starring in a wrestling movie would have been a raucous frat comedy with punchlines about unitards and cameos from Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill.
Not here. Not even close.
Instead, we have Foxcatcher, a positively harrowing and gut-wrenching true story that gets everything right. A surefire Oscar contender packed with incredible performances, the film premiered Sept. 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Tatum uses his beefy physique and blank stare to outstanding effect as real-life 1984 Olympic champion Mark Schultz. Three years later, the blue-collar wrestler trains alone in a dingy gym, occasionally doing low-wattage speaking engagements about his glory days. His parents are out of the picture. He’s emotionally stifled. His only source of love: Amiable big brother and wrestling coach Dave (Mark Ruffalo).
Enter eccentric East Coast oil tycoon John E. du Pont (Carell), who summons Mark by flying him first class to his sprawling Pennsylvania estate (dubbed Foxcatcher Farm). Stating his love of patriotism, he sits Mark down in his trophy room and promptly offers him financial support and compensated housing.
Though Mark jumps at the opportunity, you can sense the foreboding doom. Credit Carell’s unsettling presence: It’s one thing to hide under a prosthetic nose and makeup. But the actor also carries himself like a predator, looming over Mark and speaking in a flat, deliberate tone. The man is palpably lonely, entitled, strange and sexually repressed. The question isn’t if du Pont will start to prey on Mark. It’s when.
Director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) brilliantly unfolds the drama at a measured pace. (The 134-minute run time flies by.) The abuse doesn’t just neatly arrive via reactionary set pieces. We see it creep in when du Pont knocks on Mark’s door in the middle of the night and the camera cuts to the pair wrestling and grunting in darkness in the empty gym. In a helicopter ride en route to a black-tie benefit, du Pont instructs him to snort cocaine (Mark will praise him as “the father I never had” in a speech later that night.). And in the most flagrant attempt at mental torture, the man tells Mark that he’s talented enough to surpass his brother and that he must stand on his own — only to later hire Dave as a Team Foxcatcher’s wrestling coach. In fact, what isn’t on camera haunts the most.
The collateral damage is alarming. After one defeat, Mark punches himself in his hotel room and bangs his head into a mirror. Psychologically, he doesn’t have the ferocity or courage to stand up to du Pont or answer Dave honestly when he asks if everything is ok. Meanwhile, his benefactor angrily simmers with each loss and each rejection. The boiling point is imminent, and it will leave you shaken.
Rare is the movie that authentically captures both the pressure-packed world of Olympic-caliber training and the motives behind a sensational true crime. Still, at its core, this is an astute character study. And Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo — all stretching to the highest acting levels — carve out a compelling dynamic among them. This is brutal, disturbing material, no doubt, but their work needs to be seen. And remembered.
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