We Need to Talk About John: "Foxcatcher" strongly acted, well-told Oscar bait

Foxcatcher (2014)
134 min., rated R.

It is not really the film's fault, but "Foxcatcher" is very much Oscar bait. On the prospects of the film being based on a true story and the actors donning make-up, the Academy will go gaga over it. Getting past its calculated hopes of impressing and begging "for your consideration" come awards season, the film is good—sometimes very good—and it's handsomely made and strongly acted with a story that's inherently dramatic and well-told. In 1996, after paranoid-schizophrenic millionaire wrestling coach John du Pont took 1984 Olympic Gold medalist Mark Schultz under his wing, he murdered the other Schultz brother, Olympic Gold medalist Dave. On screen, "Foxcatcher" withholds more than it shares about its characters, but director Bennett Miller (2011's "Moneyball") and screenwriters E. Max Frye (1986's "Something Wild") and Dan Futterman (2005's "Capote") have something disturbing to say about wealth, dedication, and control and go about it in glacial, quietly bleak form. It's also worthwhile to see a trio of actors as we have never seen them before.

Broke, keeping to himself, and living in the shadow of his older brother in 1987, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is invited by ornithologist/philatelist/philanthropist John du Pont (Steve Carell) to his old-money Valley Forge, PA, estate, Foxcatcher Farms, and to be a part of Team Foxcatcher. After Mark packs up his car and leaves Wisconsin behind him, Du Pont becomes the father Mark never really had, while promising him $25 million a year and a different outlet to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He is pretty eccentric, patriotic, and not all there, but he wants to be a benefactor to Mark. Initially, du Pont gives the older and wiser Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) the same offer, but he turns him down, refusing to uproot his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids, and wonders what du Pont gets out of relocating his brother. For a while, Mark enjoys living the wealthy lifestyle of the du Pont dynasty, until the father-like du Pont gets him hooked on cocaine and starts showing his passive-aggressive animosity. Eventually, Mark is persuaded again to join Team Foxcatcher, with his family in tow, and he starts coaching the team, while Mark has begun slacking on his training and losing all confidence. This surely cannot end well.

Taking a page out of Sofia Coppola's book, director Bennett Miller doesn't get fancy with the camerawork or the storytelling, but he persuasively tells a fascinating human story, mostly from the point-of-view of Mark Schultz. We see these men go throughout their day and just live their lives, and the static camera catches it all that the film might as well be a documentary eavesdropping on the characters without any narration. Through Miller's observational storytelling and deliberate yet absorbing pacing, this psychological sports drama draws the viewer in and provides a muted power, even before the inevitable conclusion comes, through the dynamics of the brothers' relationship and the surrogate father relationship with du Pont. Screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman only offer hints of what makes John du Pont tick and no clear-cut answers, holding us at a distance, while actor Steve Carell's reading of the real-life man is what compels anyone to watch. Hints are all the viewer really needs, though, because the unknowable is truer to life and more frightening than a spelled-out pathological explanation for du Pont's psychotic break. His hobbies, which include stamp collections, bird-watching, and guns, point to Norman Bates-ish psychosis, and he surely has Mommy Issues. He is so stinking rich that he buys a tank, but he throws a fit when his order doesn't come with machine guns. These character details are subtly handled without turning du Pont into a stock villain. In fact, no one in the film is broadly vilified, creepy make-up and all, and a homoerotic subtext is merely implicated.

Like when Robin Williams played a disturbed photo guy in "One Hour Photo," it is now funnyman Steve Carell's turn to try out the dark side and doggone it if he doesn't knock off the viewer's socks. Losing himself completely into the role of John du Pont, he is understated and unnerving because of it. His eyes are cold and dead. His gait is slow and almost elderly. He seems so uncomfortable in his own skin that he lives through Mark. In playing this pathetic, entitled monster of a man who prefers Mark to call him "Eagle" or "Golden Eagle," it is revelatory that Carell had it in him. It's truly a chilling, transformative piece of acting that goes well beyond an eagle-like prosthetic nose and lightly shaved eyebrows, and could change the course of his career; his Oscar nomination is obviously in the bag. Not to be outdone, Channing Tatum outstandingly rises to the challenge of playing a character stripped of the charisma we usually expect from the actor on whom the jury is now in. As the lonely, lunkheaded Mark, he has the beefed-up physicality and swagger of a wrestler (with a jutting jaw and what appears to be marbles in his mouth, making his face resemble a bulldog), not to mention the mentality of one, too, and there's a stoic sadness that Tatum fulfills in the part. Matching his co-stars with more screen time, Mark Ruffalo is quite exceptional, too, in the least showy and most open of the three roles; it's particularly telling how good he is when Dave is asked to describe du Pont as a mentor for a TV interview and he loses all ability to articulate. Vanessa Redgrave, as John's disapproving mother Jean who sees through her son, doesn't have many scenes, but she makes an impact, and a de-glammed Sienna Miller appears in mom jeans as Dave's wife, Nancy.

"Foxcatcher" is smothered in a chilly, haunting mood, courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser (2012's "Zero Dark Thirty"), and makes great use of detached, artfully crafted space to keep one very uneasy. The music score by Rob Simonsen is extremely spare and unobtrusive, while the rest of the sound work consists of sneakers squeaking during the wrestling practices in the gym and bodies slapping each other. In an intensely self-destructive scene following Mark's defeat in a hotel room, there is also potent use of silence. Overall, the period of the time is expertly captured, too, with boxy TV sets and VHS tapes of wrestling matches. Director Miller's approach to the fundamental story and the screenplay is notably daring in its mundane, austere simplicity that a viewer's patience is a necessity, but it all pays off to ominous effect. Given a push by its three vanity-free performances, "Foxcatcher" is definitely an actor's film and will rattle some cages nevertheless.

Grade: B +