Take it to the mat
In the 1989 Woody Allen classic Crimes and Misdemeanors, the self-infatuated producer played by Alan Alda is fond of repeating, “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it isn’t funny.” The line is intended as a sign of the Alda character’s intellectual vulgarity, his tendency to appropriate idiot homilies as artistic wisdom, but there is a droplet of sanity in his flood of inanity. The line between comedy and tragedy has always been a razor-thin one (the classic Buster Keaton sight gag was his undiagnosed neck fracture), which may be one of the reasons that comic actors reach toward the farthest and most morose poles when they turn to drama.
Steve Carell stars in Bennett Miller’s dark and compelling Foxcatcher as the real-life billionaire John DuPont, the scion to a legendary American family fortune. DuPont was also a paranoid schizophrenic who murdered wrestling champion/coach Dave Schultz in 1996 shortly after a falling out with Dave’s younger brother Mark. At first glance, Carell almost looks like a “stunt” choice for the part of DuPont, but it is inspired casting by Miller (Capote, Moneyball). With his awkward compulsion to be both father and brother, benefactor and lover, boss and buddy, DuPont has a lot in common with Carell’s heretofore most iconic role—Dunder Mifflin regional manager Michael Scott on TV’s The Office.
This is the darkest and bleakest role that Carell has ever played, yet he uses his comedy-honed physical and vocal chops (as well as generous amounts of makeup) to disappear into the role of the pale and paunchy DuPont. Carell sucks the air out of the room in every scene, but in a manner common to men of unquestionable power and wretched social skills. Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) abet Carell by giving Foxcatcher the teeming, sweat lodge claustrophobia of a wrestling room, and a slowly mounting sense of dread.
That feeling of borderline absurdist tension and unrest is present from the opening scenes of the film, as 1984 Olympic gold medal winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) delivers an inspirational speech about pursuing dreams to uninterested elementary school children, then cashes in the meager speaking fee (actually intended for his infinitely more affable brother Dave) for a fast-food cheeseburger and another box of ramen. Like the isolated DuPont, Mark is a hornet’s nest of contradictions—he advocates for an American Dream that thoroughly fails him 47 out of every 48 months— and in DuPont he finds a father figure with the same inarticulate, evangelical and vaguely resentful patriotism.
Both Mark and DuPont are men overwhelmed by their family legacies—DuPont by to his old-money name (his imperious mother is played by Vanessa Redgrave) and Mark by his self-assured brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). When DuPont summons Mark to his Pennsylvania estate, he offers him an opportunity to form a wrestling team and train at the fully equipped on-site wrestling facilities. DuPont is a wrestling naïf, but he’s psychotically wealthy, so it happens. When DuPont fires a gun in the training room, heads barely turn. Only the eternally decent Dave seems incapable of mutating himself before DuPont’s wealth, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be bought.
Foxcatcher is a true dual-male lead piece, but Carell seems to be getting more attention than Tatum, if only by virtue of a prosthetic nose tiebreaker. However, Tatum gives even more of himself physically, making his Mark Schultz a blunt and needy time bomb of rage and self-loathing. This is the “AAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA”-worthy performance that Tatum should have been bragging about to Sony executives, and hopefully an indication that he will continue to accept challenging roles.
The podium topper here, however, is Ruffalo as the doomed family man Dave Schultz—he delivers the best supporting performance in any film this year. Ruffalo modulates his posture to the hulking hunch of a born wrestler—he walks like a bear that was raised by humans. Early in the film, Ruffalo and Tatum engage in an extended warm-up scene that gradually moves from tenderness to fury. It is a sequence of tremendous physical acting, and just right for a film that, like Snowpiercer, peers inside the class-system engine and finds only pain and oppression.