If Steve Carell wanted to radically change the public’s perception of him as the pompous but genial doofus from The Office, he couldn’t have chosen a better vehicle than Foxcatcher.
Based on events that led up to the murder of gold-medal Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996, Foxcatcher is an austere peek behind this strange and compelling footnote in athletics history. But it’s less a sports movie and more of a portrait of a man — played with a creepy, quiet severity by Carell — who’s slowly sinking deeper into the quicksand of madness.
Carell is John du Pont, an heir to the du Pont fortune who lives with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) in a sprawling Pennsylvania estate called Foxcatcher. With lots of money and minions but no friends, he appears to have few social graces. He does what he wants when he wants.
He has long had ambitions to be involved in wrestling, so he decides to build his own team and house it on his estate. He recruits down-on-his-luck Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a gold medalist like his brother (Mark Ruffalo), who in turn gets many of his contemporaries to join him as teammates.
Though Dave at first rejects du Pont’s offer to be coach, he ultimately gives in and moves into the mansion with his family.
What at first seems like an athlete’s dream come true — playing for a man who cares little about budgets and expenses — slowly curdles into a nightmare as du Pont becomes more controlling, demanding and erratic.
Carell, who is on everyone’s shortlist of Oscar contenders, is unrecognizable, both physically and emotionally. With a large nose, affected speaking style, and a genuine sense of danger, he leaves all of his previous incarnations behind.
It’s too bad then that the film, directed by Bennett Miller ( Moneyball, Capote) doesn’t live up to Carell’s memorable performance. As chilly as du Pont’s mansion on a winter’s night, Foxcatcher never quite comes together or takes off. It feels like a series of well-staged set pieces — the Schultz brothers wrestling, du Pont enticing straight-arrow Mark to try cocaine — that lead to its inevitable conclusion.
It also doesn’t attempt to offer a theory as to why du Pont had this obsession — sexual thrill? power trip? — and ends up being maddeningly vague.
Still, there are several effective moments, many of them involving Ruffalo, who’s nearly as unrecognizable as Carell. When a documentarian du Pont has hired tries to get Dave — who has started to become uneasy around du Pont — to say good things about his employer, the doubt and fear coursing through a flustered Ruffalo are palpable.
Ultimately, though, while Carell and Ruffalo make the film worth seeing, Foxcatcher’s attempt to wrestle with history leaves it pinned on the mat.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Cinemark West Plano; opens at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on Dec. 26.
Cary Darling, 817 390-7571
* * * (out of five)
Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Rated: R (drug use, a scene of violence)
Running time: 134 min.