The Academy smiles on actors that transform themselves to become real-life, albeit unattractive, people. Robert DeNiro won best actor when he got in fighting shape, thern destroyed his physique and gained over 50 pounds to become Jake LaMotta for 1980’s Raging Bull. Charlize Theron became real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster, cited by Roger Ebert as “one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema,” and she took home the Best Actress Oscar. (It didn’t hurt that Theron’s stunning beauty was morphed with otherworldly makeup into a heinously ugly creature.)
In Foxcatcher, Steve Carrell is almost unrecognizable as the paranoid-schizophrenic, real life multimillionaire John du Pont. Prosthetics applied to his already prominent nose, brow and mouth, his bulked up body, pock-marked skin and “special-needs”-style haircut all aid in making him resemble something akin to the Penguin in Batman Returns. But these are the physical attributes; it’s up to the actor to deliver on the promise offered by the special effects and makeup teams. Carrell’s strange and halting verbal cadence, his walk-shuffle, and his already fine-tuned ability from his days on The Office to make any situation painfully uncomfortable, are all at work here to deliver one of the great performance of 2014.
But is it enough to carry this film across the Oscar finish line? Foxcatcher is as painfully awkward as the characters it portrays. Maybe too much so for Oscar’s taste. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, playing Olympic Gold Medalist wrestlers are also fine, with Tatum once again proving he’s much more than a pretty face with a chiseled body. He, as well, entirely inhabits the role of a lost athlete, somewhat of a simpleton, who is nothing without another male in his periphery to guide and mold him. Almost a non-“homicidal” Lenny from Of Mice and Men, he’s so pumped up that he walks like a man who spends all his time working out; as if it’s a major effort just to lift his arms when he’s not in competition mode. Ruffalo, also a wrestler, is the” George” to Tatum’s “Lenny.” He’s the smarter, more adaptable of the two – nay – three, as he is more charming and engaging than “mentor” John du Pont. It’s these three men, pulled into this asexual triangle, that makes up the plot of this “stranger than fiction,” true-crime story. And as reality often does, raises more questions than it answers.
Although Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an Olympic Gold Medalist, he finds himself living in his older brother’s shadow. He shows up at speaking engagements in his brother’s stead, living on the meager amount he makes at personal appearances, cooking ramen in his tiny, cold apartment. The rest of his time is spent training for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. His brother, Dave (Ruffalo), has settled nicely in with his family as a college wrestling coach. While Dave seems happy, Mark is drifting, shuffling from place to place, acting and feeling untethered to any one or thing. Then comes a phone call from the du Pont family, and an invitation for Mark to visit John du Pont on his massive Pennsylvania estate.
Here, Mark meets the awkward, quiet, introverted multimillionaire. Du Pont shows off his trophy room like a kid forced by his parents to give a neighbor friend the “tour.” After more uncomfortable-ness, du Pont sits down and in his halting way, explains he is a patriot, and a believer that the American dream has fallen on hard times. Du Pont believes he can be the savior of the dream, by giving people something to believe in again, and it will be the American wrestling team in the Olympic games. With no coaching experience, he wants to fund and coach Team “Foxcatcher,” the name of his family’s stables, and wants to have Mark move in and train exclusively. He also wants Mark to convince his brother Dave to move in as well and act as assistant coach.
As effusive as Mark can become, he tries to convince Dave, but Dave has his life and his family and doesn’t want to uproot them for any amount of money. Nonplussed, Mark commits to du Pont and to Foxcatcher, and, moves into the “Chalet,” still lost and uncomfortable when left to his own devices. It’s pretty clear right away that du Pont, an obviously complex man with issues ranging from a desire to become something admirable in his mother’s eyes (played with cold distance by Vanessa Redgrave) as well as an obsession with the military and the weapons his family’s company develops for them. He takes Mark to charity and celebrity functions, showing him off like one of his mother’s prize stallions, writing speeches for him which make no bones about the fact that du Pont wants Mark to see him as some type of father-figure. And strangely, Mark needs this in his life and forms an unusual bond with du Pont.
As the story progresses, the relationship becomes creepier and the peek we get into Du Pont, more sinister and dysfunctional. Mark and du Pont are unhinged and they each need the other to facilitate a feeling of belonging, but also generate an unholy toxicity.
If you know the John DuPont story, then you know how it turns out. If not, you should let the story in all its strange manifestations wash over you, and come to your own conclusions, especially since the film doesn’t work very hard to get you there. That’s not a fault of filmmaker Bennett Miller, the successful creative behind Capote and Moneyball. Like his other successes, Miller presents the situation (real life incidents seem to be his pudding) and let the characters move forward with believable, yet thoroughly unsafe, behavior (think of Capote’s unhealthy obsession with killer Perry Smith).
Foxcatcher is powerful, enigmatic stuff that offers no easy answers. If you’re looking to be spoon-fed, you’ll feel greatly unsatisfied. If, however, tone and mood are your predilections, you will come away from the film with a respect for the storytellers. Miller, Ruffalo, Tatum and Carell have fashioned something altogether insidious, and painfully, expertly; maladroit. So much so, it may scare Oscar away.
Foxcatcher is currently in limited release, and will open wider in January, 2015.