Steve Carell and Channing Tatum disappear into new psychological thriller, Foxcatcher (Telluride Review)

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The jazz cliché says that the notes you don’t play matter as much as the ones you do. Similarly, in film, the things that aren’t said are often the things that matter most. Case in point: Bennett Miller’s new film Foxcatcher; a dark psychological thriller which hinges on the things that no one says.

Foxcatcher tells the true story of Olympic gold medal wrestlers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and their relationship with John duPont (Steve Carell), an eccentric billionaire, philanthropist, and financial supporter of amateur sport. After becoming their patron, duPont unexpectedly shot and killed David Schultz.

What is so essential to the success of Foxcatcher is the depth and complexity of its characters.  In a Q&A after the screening, director Bennett Miller called Mark Schultz and John duPont “two people incapable of being honest with each other – about what they wanted from each other and who they were.” Foxcatcher is an unsettling portrait of two deeply repressed men and their failure to communicate clearly with others or themselves.

Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum with Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller at the Telluride Film Festival

Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum with Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller at the Telluride Film Festival

Everyone will talk, of course, about Carell’s transition into such a dramatic, dark role, which seems like a real departure from the comedies he’s known for. But it’s this background in comedy that enables him to so honestly inhabit the unstable and insane mind of John duPont.  Carell’s success as Michael Scott came from his ability to earnestly adopt a crazy character philosophy and deliver it as something he truly believes. You can see echoes of Michael Scott in some of duPont’s more ridiculous lines, like “I consider us friends, and most of my friends will call me Eagle or Golden Eagle,” and “I’m an ornithologist, but more importantly, I’m a patriot.”  You need someone experienced playing crazy characters to play a character this crazy.

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Carell’s research in preparing the character was extensive. “I watched as much material as I could,” he said. Some of his most valuable exposure came from the raw footage of an autobiographic documentary duPont directed. “The documentary was a public persona [duPont] wanted people to see, but in between takes there was raw footage of him directing the crew, which provided tremendous insight.” Creating such an unstable character isn’t easy. When asked about writing for duPont, Miller said, “To be honest, the film actually pulls back on the disturbing, erratic, insane behavior, because it would be difficult for audiences to see that up there and not question why no one fled.”

Carell’s transformation into duPont is so complete that it’s easy to overlook Tatum, who delivers the most subtle and refined performance of his career. Tatum is famous for his muscular physique (see Magic Mike for more on that), but as Mark Schultz, he is somehow more hulking, more masculine than ever. Everything is changed, from the way he scarfs his food to the way he stalks more than he walks. Tatum’s true success, though, is showcasing this caveman’s emotional vulnerability. Tatum told the audience, “The real Mark Schultz, in real life, is one of the most emotional people I’ve ever met. The circumstances he was in were a tinderbox for that.” He masterfully embodies this weight of emotion struggling under a hypermasculine restraint. You can read on his face Schultz’s desire to do his best, to turn his life around, to earnestly connect with another human being. His struggle with his inability to vocalize these feelings is the foundation of Tatum’s performance.

Tatum’s extensive preparation for the role began when he was approached seven years ago. “I was much younger and I was just starting as an actor. I didn’t understand and was scared of the darkness of the script. I didn’t say yes until I met Bennett, who helped me see the story in a new light.” The work of preparing to play a wrestler was physically taxing, as well. “I had no idea how hard wrestling was. I’ve done martial arts my whole life. Wrestling is the only sport with no resting. It’s a claustrophobic, painful sport.”

It’s worth remarking on Foxcatcher’s minimalist score, which also highlights what isn’t there. A lack of musical accompaniment in many scenes emphasizes the characters’ failure to communicate clearly to each other. Without music, it’s particularly noticeable when they stumble through sentences and struggle to find the right words. When asked about improvising in scenes, Tatum said, “It helped me not settle into the words, not get complacent and comfortable.” Mark Schultz struggles with public speaking twice in the film – a literal failure to communicate. And then, to echo these failures, all at once the music returns. The volume swells so loud that we’re unable to hear the characters’ dialogue. We can see them talking, but we can’t hear the words. Miller’s sound design emphasizes the inefficiency of human language to convey meaning.

It's possible that audiences won’t like Foxcatcher because they’ll walk in expecting a traditional sports film, a normal biopic; that they’ll want Tatum to be stunningly handsome and Carell to be goofily funny.  None of these things are true.  Foxcatcher is one of the few sports movies that is also an art film. It’s complex and challenging; by leaving so much unsaid, it forces audiences to think about it and engage with it on a higher level. Ultimately, it could be a very polarizing film. That’s a good thing – polarizing means it makes strong choices. Whatever Foxcatcher does, it doesn’t pander.

The discussion following the screening ended with the question on everybody’s mind: Why did duPont do it? “I think we’ll never know,” said Tatum. Carell astutely replied, “It’s one of those situations where you don’t expect something to happen, but you’re not surprised when it does.” The film doesn’t offer an answer. Once again, its power comes from what it doesn’t say.

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