Carell broadens his horizon in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher”

BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA

unnamedBennett Miller is a filmmaker who seems to specialize in deep studies of American figures. He has focused on underdog Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball,” acclaimed author Truman Capote in “Capote” and famous New York City bus tour-guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch in his documentary, “The Cruise.” With these films, Miller provides viewers with richly detailed narratives of certain events in these characters’ lives, giving us an understanding of who these people are, or where.

He has accomplished this once again in his biographical sports drama, “Foxcatcher.” In the film, Miller tells the story of the bond between an Olympic wrestler and his coach and the tragic consequences that followed.

For all of his life, Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) has been living in the shadow of his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic wrestler. One day, Mark receives a phone call from the wealthy Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania to meet with millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), who decides to use his facilities as a training ground for young wrestlers. While there, Mark is offered the opportunity to train alongside these wrestlers, with the hopes of getting a spot on the U.S. team for the 1988 Summer Olympics and winning the gold. As Mark continues to reside on the estate, the bond between him and John will eventually lead to consequences that neither could have predicted.

Steve Carell’s portrayal of du Pont is a very chilling performance. Although Carell has mostly worked with comedic roles in his career, he is so absorbed in his character that you don’t even think about Carell as Michael Scott from “The Office” or Brick Tamland from the “Anchorman” films. It’s a jarring change from what we’re normally used to seeing him do, and it’s undeniably impressive, a big leap forward into a different dominion for his acting talent. With the role of du Pont, Carell brings us a character who strives to fit in and desperately wants someone with whom he can connect.

Besides du Pont’s strange demeanor, Carell also gives us a vivid sense of his character’s desire to be respected. This is seen throughout the film, especially when he tries to have his hard-to-please mother (Vanessa Redgrave) support his endeavors. Even though Redgrave has very limited screen time, we get a sense of her character’s disapproval towards John and his devotion to wrestling. Because of their strained connection, it’s a mother-son dynamic that reminds you of the kind that Alfred Hitchcock would place in some of his films.

Similar to Carell, Channing Tatum gives a performance that is far from what we’ve seen him do in the past. As a wrestler who wants to prove that he can be as good as his brother, Tatum effortlessly brings across Mark’s sense of shortcoming, a character who wants to reach his highest potential and earn the appropriate recognition for it. Tatum’s ability to display the physical and mental damage his training is putting on him shows a whole other side to his acting ability and how committed he is to showing the unraveling of his character’s psyche, particularly in the scene following his defeat in the first round of an Olympic trial.

Mark Ruffalo does a highly memorable job in his role as Dave Schultz, an understanding, soft-spoken and compassionate brother who only wants the best for Mark, and he brings forward a comforting presence in his behavior as his character does what he can to look out for Mark’s well-being.

Similar to Miller’s “Moneyball” and its behind-the-scenes look at baseball, the screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman doesn’t focus directly on the sport of wrestling, but instead takes more of a look at what goes on in the background, the events that athletic spectators don’t see. Here, the writers do a stunning job in depicting the friendship between John and Mark, two individuals who are looking to bond through their similar interests. The connection that the two characters end up establishing is one that’s equally complicated and heartbreaking, and the scenes that Frye and Futterman write for these two characters to share take their time in progressing John and Mark’s relationship and the tension that soon accompanies it.

Director Miller is a filmmaker whose movies thrive on being dialogue-driven. The scenes that he films between Carell and Tatum are especially memorable because of his ability to have these two actors succeed in delivering uncommonly dramatic performances. In “Foxcatcher,” Miller powerfully captures the loneliness and longing to be honored that John and Mark exhibit, and he brings us a masterful true-story account for the screen that should now be considered as a part of the gold standard for biopics.

Final grade: A