Throughout Foxcatcher, Steve Carell holds his nose slightly up in the air, as if he’s trying to balance the prosthetic schnoz with which he’s been saddled. Perhaps he was simply distracted by the device. I know I was.
Now, I don’t want to make this all about the nose, but I think it’s emblematic of what is, in the end, a disastrous performance: one that’s exaggerated, pronounced and so prominent that it obstructs other features.
Carell plays John du Pont, heir to the du Pont family fortune, accomplished ornithologist and wrestling aficionado. In real life, du Pont sponsored Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz in a bid for glory at the 1988 games in Seoul. Foxcatcher is a dramatization of their unusual relationship, as well as the grim circumstances to which it led.
To be fair, du Pont is meant to be an odd duck. Yet every moment of Carell’s performance exists to remind us of this. (You could argue his Maxwell Smart was more versatile.) Carell speaks with odd pauses and usually in a phlegmy monotone. (That nose again!) Almost everything he does appears to be in slow motion, whether he’s walking through his mansion or celebrating a victory with a mild hand pump. The takeaway from most scenes is the same: this guy is weird.
If Foxcatcher works for you, it could be appreciated as a dark commentary on American ambition.
The movie does offer some pat psychology as explanation, most of it deliberately delivered. Du Pont’s mother (a withering Vanessa Redgrave) disapproves of wrestling, while he sees it as his chance to separate himself from his family’s legacy of competitive horse training. At the same time, he’s obsessed with his family’s place in American history and sees his sponsorship of Schultz as an expression of extreme patriotism. And so, if Foxcatcher works for you, it could be appreciated as a dark commentary on American ambition.
Mark Schultz is played by Channing Tatum, who continues to prove he’s the real deal. As in Magic Mike, he has a role here that’s rooted in physicality but not limited by it. The movie gives him more traditional, actorly moments – including a convincing scene of self abuse in front of a mirror – and he doesn’t miss a beat. As is often the case, though, the best performance in the film is the quietest one, given by Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz, Mark’s older brother and training partner. The two are separated by du Pont’s scheming, which creates tremors in a relationship that had already shown hints of a fault line. The movie’s opening moments include a strikingly intimate sequence in which Mark and David warm up for practice by grappling each other in an embrace that is nothing less than a combative hug.
That opening has a delicate sparseness that is otherwise absent from the film. Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) and his collaborators concoct an ostentatiously somber mood, from the wintry color palette that dominates the visuals to the low, rumbling chords that define the moaning soundtrack. Foxcatcher is striking – as a doom-laden drama and an outlying effort from Carell – yet overall there’s a sense of self-inflation to its aesthetic choices that doesn’t quite match what the movie achieves.