Bennett Miller has proved himself an extraordinarily patient director, and that patience pays off with Foxcatcher, his third film. His first two, Capote and Moneyball, were austere, reserved, well-acted, and, for me, a little wan—docudramas lacking a style to make their dreariness distinct. Style-wise, Foxcatcher isn’t much different; if anything, it’s drearier. Still austere, still reserved, and shot through what looks like a perpetual mix of cloud cover and a hint of soul-sucking fluorescent light. But it hums with tension in a way Miller’s previous films did not.
The project that dates back to the six-year gap between his first two films and is based on the true story of Olympic gold-medal wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz. Adrift following their triumph, Mark (Channing Tatum) falls in with wealthy oddball Du Pont (Steve Carell), who has ambitions to coach Olympic wrestlers, despite his notable lack of success or even ability in this area. Mark jumps at the chance to be paid to train; Dave (Mark Ruffalo) is more wary, but eventually gets drawn into Du Pont’s bizarre world.
It doesn’t strike Mark as all that bizarre at first, even as Miller does a brilliant job of making wrestling look like the weirdest goddamn thing in the world—he lingers on the scuffles and slaps of skin, and rather than homoerotic it feels oddly clinical, like animals working through some bizarre trials. Wrestling informs the whole movie; when the Schultz brothers embrace, their hugs look like grapples. Dave has always looked after Mark, and Ruffalo and Tatum are enormously touching as brothers who seem only able to fully relate to each other through their chosen sport (for once, it’s fitting that two movie stars playing brothers look nothing alike). Tatum is especially effective, selling his buy-in for Du Pont as a father figure and acting as sweetly deluded as he does in the 21 Jump Street series, with fewer (though not zero) laughs.
Comedy lurks somewhere behind this material; without its true-life tragedy, it could be a farce. Carell, sporting a prosthetic beak and a mouth-agape pallor, actually looks a little bit like Groo, the reformed super villain he voices in the Despicable Me cartoons—especially Du Pont’s odd posture, a sort of regal hunch. He also looks birdlike, fitting for a self-described ornithologist, and there’s even some Michael Scott in his childlike desire to make his weird dreams come true. Carell’s signature Office character was driven by a willful middle-management misinterpretation of the flexibility of the American dream; Du Pont seems to believe glory is his birthright. The world doesn’t do much to correct him.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating elements of this true-crime story is the way that for a while, Du Pont’s absurd scheme actually kind of works. All-American wrestling glory is within his grasp. But he hits a wall of his own making, widening the cracks in his psyche. The downward-spiral narrative has its limitations, and Miller pushes them with a 135-minute running time. But he pushes his actors to some of their best work; they haunt Foxcatcher like ghosts.