Where is Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher?” Certainly, the Steve Carell we all know—the personality he has cultivated over a career spanning the Second City and the fringes of “Saturday Night Live” on through pratfall-prone film roles and the cringe comedy of “The Office”—is nowhere to be found in John du Pont, the character into which he disappears in this shattering true-life tragedy.
Carell, who was still recognizable as Carell in his respectable forays into dramatic acting (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Way, Way Back”), has finally turned a corner here, shedding decades of familiar tics and stepping widely outside his comfort zone. Much like his castmates Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Michael Hall, he looks in “Foxcatcher” like a different person entirely, with his lumbering gait, hunched back, gray hair, pockmarked features and a giant schnoz that has been through too many ringers.
The genius of his invisibility act, though, goes beyond the bang-up makeup: Carell has delivered a performance of slippery control and bruised megalomania—a work of seething subtext and profound complexity. How can he do another “Dinner For Schmucks” after this?
It’s almost unfortunate that Carell is receiving most of the buzz for “Foxcatcher” (which opens across South Florida today) because the movie itself is another knockout from director Bennett Miller, of “Capote” and “Moneyball” fame. Like those films, it’s a richly observed, gravely realistic portrayal of remarkable, outsized Americans. But if “Moneyball” was a sports movie for math nerds, “Foxcatcher” is a sports movie for people who hate sports.
It’s set in the world of freestyle wrestling, and rarely, if ever, have the stratospheric delusions and the savage Darwinism of professional sports been so bravely, harshly spotlit. There is no positivity to be gleaned from the athletic pursuits in “Foxcatcher” beyond the first scene that wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Ruffalo) share at their gym: a bracing, groping, homoerotic ballet of affection-cum-rivalry. In all the other instances, sport is hell—a battlefield of shame and thwarted expectations, where the ominous music swallows any semblance of triumphalism.
Tatum, who like Carell rises to the occasion with the best work of his career, is the sympathetic heart of “Foxcatcher.” His Mark is a wrestler good enough to win an Olympic medal but not good enough to step out of the shadow of his more talented brother. Things seem to be turning around, though, thanks to an out-of-the-blue phone call from a representative of John du Pont, an ornithologist and multimillionaire heir to the du Pont chemical dynasty, who has taken as much a fancy in wrestlers as he does in rare spotted owls.
John invites Mark to his Foxcatcher Farm and estate, where he woos him with bromides about how the country has lost its patriotic compass, and that Mark symbolizes nothing less than an avatar for American exceptionalism. Mark drinks the Kool-Aid, becoming a veritable dressage horse for John—the millionaire’s pet project. He moves into a Foxcatcher chalet and trains for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics under John’s peculiar tutelage.
Surprisingly, this unlikely pair begins to resemble the lovers in “Behind the Candelabra,” just without the sex (neither expresses any interest in women, and the sexuality of both men is a concern Miller judiciously avoids). Mark lets his hair grow all tousled, and becomes a shirtless manservant to his mentor and father figure, sharing private helicopter rides and lines of coke. But just when you think you know where the film is going, it pivots again, when Dave Schultz arrives at Foxcatcher to serve as an assistant coach for John’s Olympic wrestling team, stirring up feelings of inadequacy in Mark—just as John himself is grappling to rise to expectations within his own family, namely his disapproving mother (a marvelously chilly Vanessa Redgrave).
If you know the real-life narrative behind the movie, you know the ending, but it’s a better film if you don’t do your homework (whatever you do, don’t read the movie’s Wikipedia entry, which gives everything away in one sentence). “Foxcatcher” ultimately shares more in common with “Capote” than “Moneyball.” It’s a gripping, true-crime autopsy of strange bedfellows and misplaced love where, for John at least, the facts of his life spill dangerously into fiction.