Actors try to reinvent themselves all of the time, often to mixed results. After a disastrous fall from grace, Robert Downey, Jr. reinvented himself as a sarcastic action star. He’s now making hundred of millions of dollars as a man in a robot suit. After years of a successful comedy career, Jim Carrey tried to reinvent himself as a dramatic lead. He recently scraped the bottom of the comedy barrel and returned to a 20-year-old role in Dumb and Dumber To. This perception shift is difficult to pull off, but it is essential to producing an eclectic body of work. In Foxcatcher, the new film from director Bennett Miller and co-writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, two pre-categorized performers look to shed their respective classifications, and both performers are exceedingly successful in this endeavor.
The (loosely nonfictional) film tracks the lives of three men before, during, and after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a gold medal winner in wrestling at the ’84 games, is increasingly dissatisfied with his quiet, unrealized life, spent training with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a fellow gold-medal winner. Mark pulls in a little money from speaking engagements, but his world is small and sad. So when odd-duck millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) offers up his Foxcatcher estate as a training grounds, Mark jumps at the chance to live well doing the only thing he knows.
Mark trades one father figure for another as he leaves Dave and moves in at Foxcatcher. And John is overjoyed to look upon Mark as a son (among perhaps other things). The arrangement starts out quite well, but Mark soon proves to be incapable of balancing the responsibilities of leadership and the distractions of John’s extravagant lifestyle. With Seoul approaching, John betrays his young protege and brings Dave in to clean up the mess. The triangle between the three men becomes incredibly fragile, as the pressures of the world stage drive them to drastic places.
The performances in Foxcatcher have been hyped since the film’s original planned release date a year ago. Expectations only rose in the ensuing 12 months – the word “Oscar” has been hovering around the lead actors for months. But this is one instance where the hype is earned, as both men are transformative here. All of the charisma and charm that Carell has displayed over the last ten years is gone, replaced by delusional pride and an uneasy sense of entitlement. While sporadically funny, the humor in the du Pont character always comes from a place of absurd unpredictability, an unsettling quality.
As great as Carell is, however, this isn’t necessarily news. Carell has shown dramatic range before this in films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Way Way Back. So let’s take a minute and acknowledge the real winner of the “most improved” award: Channing Tatum. Tatum is excellent in the film, and the phrase “Tatum is excellent” is not one I would have ever expected to type a few years ago, unless in reference to his ability to grow abs. But Tatum’s work in movies like 21 Jump Street and Side Effects have shown that he has more ability than one might have expected from the star of Step Up. His work as Mark Schultz cements that, as he gives a layered, considered performance, consisting mostly of quiet moments punctuated by violent, effective outbursts. He uses his physicality here in a unique way as well, affecting a hulking posture and strained gait that undermine his reputation as a pretty boy. The terrible haircut doesn’t hurt either.
Bad haircuts all around, actually. And bad posture. And weird voices. And major makeup modifications. All of this is meant to distinguish the actors as “characters,” and it really shouldn’t work, which makes it even more impressive that Tatum and Carell (and Ruffalo) can give such cohesive performances. Miller got lucky in that respect, because the prosthetics easily could have taken over his movie (in fact Carell’s fake teeth still almost do so). Perhaps it is to the directors credit that he allows the actors to take over the movie so fully. A similar level of patience is present in the rest of the film, as scenes play out slowly and deliberately, as if building toward a button that may never come. The movie looks great in the muted hands of cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), but aside from that Miller isn’t doing anything too flashy with the camera. He’s letting the characters speak for themselves.
And so Mark and John end up being the most interesting part of the film. The story itself meanders and is a little vague at times, and as such it is difficult to connect with, but the two main characters are so fleshed out that we are left with an overwhelming sense of their faults and failures. The lack of engagement in the plot doesn’t distract the viewer because he or she will be so occupied by the people on screen. Even Dave, into whom Ruffalo clearly put a lot of work, gets moments of revelatory importance toward the conclusion. It would have been nice to get a little more out of that performance. But it is hard to argue too much with what we did get. As a fine filmmaker, Bennett hasn’t exactly reinvented himself, but he has given two talented actors an opportunity to do that for their own careers.