The most haunting thing in Bennett Miller’s latest film, Foxcatcher, is Steve Carell. That’s right, the same rubber-faced comedian who gave us the dim-witted meteorologist of Anchorman and the oblivious corner-office boob of The Office. Carell plays John du Pont, the ne’er-do-well scion of the famous American chemical company who became an unlikely patron of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in the ’80s despite any real knowledge of the sport. He was a deep-pocketed, insecure dilettante straining to be taken seriously. At his blue-blooded family’s Pennsylvania estate, he set up a training facility to help athletes realize their potential. And as Carell plays him, with a putty birdlike nose, sallow skin, and a locked jaw, we know there’s something not right about him from the get-go.
So does Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a quiet, gold-medal-winning hulk who’s broke, desperate, and living in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). When du Pont approaches him to come to his Team Foxcatcher compound, it feels like the creepy come-on of a guy in a van offering a kid sweets. After Mark arrives at du Pont’s gym, things quickly go from mildly eccentric to lethally dangerous. The magnate’s idea of fun is buying military-grade weapons, hoovering lines of cocaine, and getting down on the mat to grapple with his wrestlers in a way that doesn’t seem entirely wholesome. You don’t have to know anything about the true story the film is based on to guess that it won’t end well.
Miller, the director of 2005’s Capote and 2011’s Moneyball, has shown a knack for turning real-life events into prestige procedural dramas. His movies may center on a gruesome murder in Kansas, a baseball team’s unorthodox philosophy, or, in this case, a pair of wrestler brothers who come under the wing of an unstable benefactor. But what they’re all really about is America: our obsession with pulpy true crime, our desire to see the underdog win, our lurid fascination with the dark side of our democracy’s rich and powerful elite. The problem is that as impressive as the leads are (especially Carell, who subtly pinpoints the one percent’s paranoia and pathological sense of entitlement), the movie unfolds at a chilly remove. It withholds insights into characters and smothers the audience with its bleak moodiness. Like du Pont himself, Foxcatcher draws us in without really allowing us to get under its skin. B-