It is an old Hollywood tradition for beautiful actresses to go “ugly,” undergoing immense physical transformations and hiding their famous looks to play gritty characters.
By Noah Gittell
It is an old Hollywood tradition for beautiful actresses to go “ugly,” undergoing immense physical transformations and hiding their famous looks to play gritty characters. Usually, they win Oscars for such roles, with Nicole Kidman in “The Hours” and Charlize Theron in “Monster” among the recent examples. Steve Carell might be poised to pull off the same feat. In “Foxcatcher,” the charming funnyman dons heavy make-up and a prosthetic nose to play real-life convicted murderer John du Pont, but it is the inner darkness he taps that makes his one of the year’s best performances.
The story made the newspapers in the mid-90s, but director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) digs beneath the headlines to craft an insular story of violent dysfunction that reveals a deeper social critique. John du Pont, an underachieving member of a seminal U.S. family, becomes fascinated with wrestling and one day decides to sponsor and coach the U.S. wrestling team, despite having no experience with the sport. He builds a training facility at his estate – Foxcatcher Farm – and invites the team to live and work out there, in preparation for the next Olympic games. Sometime later, seemingly out of the blue, he shoots and kills Dave Schultz, a wrestler on the team.
Although the actual case was short on details, director Miller theorizes that the murder was a crime of passion. Du Pont had an abnormally close relationship with Schultz’s brother, Mark – also a wrestler – and when he perceived Dave as a threat to their friendship, he killed him in cold blood. Still, Miller is less interested in rehashing the facts of the case – à la David Fincher’s “Zodiac” – than he is in understanding the minds of the poor souls involved.
Both du Pont and Mark Schultz grew up with absent fathers, and Miller portrays their relationship as a twisted re-enactment of their severe abandonment issues. As Mark, Channing Tatum is the child in the relationship, and he brings a quiet, sweet vulnerability to the dumb jock archetype. He provides able support to Carell, whose performance is the film’s centerpiece. He plays du Pont as a casualty of the aristocracy, raised with privilege but without the tools for actual accomplishment, or even the ability to emotionally connect. The scenes in which he tries to socialize with the team are painfully awkward, and it is hard to imagine anyone but Carell pulling them off so well.
Although this is his first stab at drama, Carell is perfect for the role, bringing all the awkwardness and entitlement he honed from many years on TV’s “The Office,” but without the cathartic outbursts of comedy. As a result, we spend the movie waiting for the inevitable, very different type of outburst to occur.
Still, “Foxcatcher” is not for everyone. Like Miller’s other films, it refuses to entertain or placate its audience. Those of us who like to leave the theater with a clear idea of how to feel should look elsewhere. The film, notably, is filled with various silences; there is very little to the musical score and the interactions between the lead characters are defined by what goes uncommunicated. In these ways, Miller refuses to guide our entry to the story.
My Rating: See it in the theater