LONDON, England — Forget what you’ve heard about Oscar-buzz behemoth Foxcatcher, Steve Carell might be playing it straight for a change but that doesn’t automatically make him the best thing in this true crime drama.
Carell is good in a brooding, atmospheric movie but Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are better. They turn in career-best performances as a pair of gold medal-winning Olympic wrestlers whose fates become entwined with a wealthy but maladjusted millionaire.
The idyllic Foxcatcher estate, owned by John du Pont (Carell), slowly becomes a nightmare as the heir’s vanity and megalomania compromise his apparently earnest efforts to bankroll the American wrestling team for the good of the nation.
The role of du Pont is classic Oscar bait. As you look back through a decade of Best Actor awards the same tropes recur again and again: powerful men, preferably based on real people, grappling with their inner demons as they strain to reach a great ambition. Lincoln, The King’s Speech, There Will Be Blood, and of course exactly ten years before this awards season, Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Capote was Bennett Miller’s first feature film, Foxcatcher is his third.
Miller’s second film—Moneyball—had a protagonist with similar issues, if not similar power. Brad Pitt was shortlisted but overlooked for the Best Actor statue but, by God, that movie was a lot more fun to watch than Foxcatcher. In the latest movie, we are invited to sit back and enjoy the three central performances rather than be swept along by the drama.
Speaking after the screening at the London Film Festival, Carell said the role had got under his skin. "It’s something I still think about," he said. And it will get under the skin of the audience—I don’t know how many horror movies were released in 2014, but this must be one of the creepiest performances of the year. In one scene where the chemicals tycoon is attempting to give world class wrestlers a few pointers in order to impress his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), it is almost too excruciating to watch; like Ricky Gervais in the British version of The Office rather than Carell’s American remake which was softened for a primetime network audience.
While obviously not as cartoonish as the deluded leaders in The Office, du Pont seemed to stretch credulity at times. Carell was smothered in aging makeup and a huge prosthetic nose, the enormous beak may have been required to make him look like du Pont but we could surely have done without the rest of the concealment which appeared to mask his facial expressions. For most of the film, after all, Carell is older than the man he is playing.
Buzz surrounding Carell’s performance clearly stems from seeing him so far out of his screwball comfort zone, but the man himself doesn’t see why it’s such a big deal that he’s playing a straight role. "I just think of myself as an actor, not necessarily a comedic actor,” he said.
Although it is a serious role, some of the most enjoyable moments are Carell’s comic lines delivered in po-faced sincerity. “I’m an ornithologist but more importantly I’m a patriot,” he says to the impressionable young wrestler Mark Schultz, played excellently by Tatum. Ruffalo, who plays his brother, is great as the steady hand amid a maelstrom of emotion.
With a mouthpiece to elongate his lower jaw, Tatum is perfect as a beefed up ‘80s athlete in double denim. The battle to reach his athletic potential while his head was screwed up by doubts, insecurities, and the influence of du Pont was brilliantly realized, culminating in a heaving, physical demonstration of his mental anguish that totals his hotel room.
In London, Miller said he couldn’t help being drawn to conflicted people like Schultz and du Pont. “I'm attracted to these characters who are outsiders who end up in world's where they don't really belong,” he said. “These bizarre ambitions by protagonists who believe that if they can accomplish their ambition they will somehow remedy the damage in their life or something.”
It seems Miller and the Academy are as one. If the filmmaker continues in this vein don’t expect Foxcatcher to be the last of his movies showered with Oscar nominations.