November 7, 2014

Carell's dark turn catches audience by surprise in new film

Despite having begun his career as a director in 1998, Bennett Miller has only made four movies. If his previous works, which include Capote and Moneyball, were any indication, his most recent film, Foxcatcher, should not disappoint. And it didn’t.

The film is based on the real life story of John du Pont, an eccentric millionaire who in the mid-90's trained two brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz, to compete to win the Olympic gold medal in wrestling. After months of grueling training, du Pont shot and killed Dave in his driveway, and subsequently was sentenced to prison, where he later died. The movie, which details the time when the three are at du Pont’s wrestling academy at Foxcatcher Farms, is anchored by a truly sensational performance from Steve Carell as du Pont.

Foxcatcher is an acting showcase; Miller’s direction ensures this. The story of Foxcatcher Farms and its trophy wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) provides room for numerous fireworks. However, at every opportunity the director opts for restraint. While in most psychological thrillers the characters externalize their pain either physically or verbally with quite a bit of dramatics, Miller fights this convention. Foxcatcher does not provide any release, and du Pont’s constantly chilly demeanor does nothing but heighten his presence as a villain. Carell’s visage and intonation alone are enough to paint a picture of evil. What truly disturbs the viewer, though, are his words. John du Pont is a patriot. He is the embodiment of American exceptionalism. As much as his goal for Mark Schultz to win the gold medal is a selfish one, it is very much representative of America’s own nationalistic, competitive spirit. The viewer identifies with du Pont, and it is terrifying. Carell’s performance scares the audience on an internal, psychological level.

While Carell’s performance as du Pont is certainly the showcase, Tatum's and Mark Ruffalo’s respective depictions of Mark Schultz and his brother Dave definitely do not go unnoticed. Ruffalo is wonderfully cast as an antithesis to both Carell’s du Pont and Tatum’s Mark Schultz. While his brother’s life is very much in flux, Dave Schultz has been able to settle down with a family. Mark is coerced into joining Team Foxcatcher because he is short on cash, but it is out of love for his brother that Dave jumps on board.

For du Pont, Dave Schultz is everything that he cannot be. The two share a similar thirst for victory, but Dave takes a backseat to the welfare of his family. Du Pont could do nothing but dream about the success Dave Schultz acquired as a wrestler. Throughout Mark Schultz’s training, they battle with each other. Du Pont pushes Mark to and over his limits to achieve gold while Dave defends Mark Schultz’s psyche.

In a masterstroke, Miller takes all of the fighting in this movie full of wrestlers and stages it on the battlefield of the mind. The narrative complexity in conjunction with its restrained acting places Foxcatcher at the forefront of this year’s batch of psychological thrillers.