'Foxcatcher': Cannes Review

'Foxcatcher,' Bennett Miller (Competition)

Tipped to be this year's breakout title, the third feature from the director of Capote and Moneyball stars Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo in a ripped-from-the-headlines drama based on the murder of Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz. Foxcatcher had originally been slated to open last year’s AFI Film Festival but was held back for Cannes with Sony Classics (who have U.S. rights) clearly eyeing a major awards push. (Sales: Panorama Media)

A superbly modulated study of a twisted mind with a career-changing performance by Steve Carell.

Bennett Miller's wrestling drama stars Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

Mesmerizing in its incremental layering of a bizarre, tragic and thoroughly warped character study, Foxcatcher sees director Bennett Miller well surpassing even the fine work he did in his previous two films, Capote and Moneyball.

Centered on an astonishing and utterly unexpected serious turn by Steve Carell, this beautifully modulated work has a great deal on its mind about America's privileged class, usurious relationships, men's ways of proving themselves, brotherly bonds and how deeply sublimated urges can assert themselves in the most unsavory ways. Yet another adventurous, first-class production from Annapurna Pictures, the Sony Pictures Classics release has everything going for it to prevail as one of the major prestige titles of late 2014.

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The superb screenplay by E. Max Frye (Something Wild) and Dan Futterman (Capote) scores strongly on several fronts: Penetrating the mindset of the uppermost tier of longstanding East Coast wealth, making some very diverse characters psychologically plausible, and revealing in smartly judged stages the sickness of a man mentally ill, emotionally stunted and sexually stunted. In this moment of sexual forthrightness and pride, it's bracing and fascinating to behold such an exceptionally detailed and creepy study of monumental self-repression and the results it can yield.

The story hinges on a shocking murder committed in 1996 by John du Pont, an oddball member of one of the country's richest families, of Dave Schultz, a former Olympics wrestler who ran the titular training program at the center du Pont built on his Pennsylvania estate. It took a long time -- nine years -- to build up to the crime, which seemed so lacking in motive that du Pont was simply declared not to be "in his right mind" when he put three bullets into his longtime associate.

Bennett and his writers have dedicated themselves to detailing what they believe was really behind the sorrowful affair. In 1987, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a dour young man seemingly at a dead end. He was a gold-medal winner in wrestling three years earlier at the Los Angeles Olympic games, but all he can do now is stare at the medals and trophies in his crappy apartment and try to rouse the interest of elementary school students in sports. His older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also took home wrestling gold and is Mark's only source of human warmth and love, but he's off in Colorado with his wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) and their young kids.

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Mark could therefore not be more susceptible to persuasion when he's paged to fly for a visit to the du Pont estate -- first-class, of course, with a chopper to bring him onto the estate, a vast property surrounded by woods. When the host finally appears, the man looks like a shrimp compared to his powerfully built guest; he has pasty, colorless skin, a high, whiny voice and posture that emphasizes his pear shape. The only assertive thing about him is his protuberant nose, which he invariably keeps pointed high in the air, as might a king.

Noticing all this, you suddenly do a double-take when you realize that the actor playing du Pont is Carell. Haughty through money and position, he's weak in every other way, also seemingly without friends but with a special loathing for his aged imperious mother (a commanding, still stunning Vanessa Redgrave).

From the beginning, you can't take your eyes off Carell; as if by some secret alchemy, the actor makes you believe that his character is an entirely uncharismatic man while delivering a completely charismatic performance. The combination of his thin, reedy voice with frequent heavy silences and odd vocal pacing is thoroughly unnerving. He is so socially maladroit that no one would tolerate him but for his wealth and status, although his speech habits command attention by virtue of their simple weirdness.

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Installing Mark in a sumptuous guest house on his enormous estate, du Pont inspires Mark with patriotic statements, how the young man can help America be strong again and how he wants him to win at the forthcoming World Cup games in France, which he does, and then at the Seoul Olympics the following year, for which more young wrestlers are brought in for Mark to train.

But it also starts becoming evident that du Pont has something else on his mind. He touches Mark, awkwardly and tentatively, whenever he can in a "manly," congratulatory kind of way, and tries to make the young man complicit in his hatred of his mother and her horses. He soon has Mark begin to give him personal wrestling lessons, an obvious excuse for constant physical contact, and begins encouraging him to get out from under his older brother's shadow.

It isn't long before he encourages Mark to join him in taking drugs and the young man's increasing self-disgust brings him to wallow in them. Exactly what goes on between the two men behind closed doors isn't explicitly stated, but it seems quite clear, while Mark's physical condition deteriorates to the point where he can hardly compete anymore.

With the Olympics looming, du Pont suddenly turns on Mark, calling him "an ungrateful ape," and persuades the reluctant Dave to come lead the effort for the 1988 Olympics. Dave, who basically raised his younger brother after their parents died young, is an all-around terrific guy -- great at establishing rapport with others and at teaching the young hopefuls who show up at the big training center du Pont has established. Dave tries to make Mark snap out of his funk and train for the games. For their part, Mark and du Pont are no longer on speaking terms, the latter otherwise occupied in the wake of the long-awaited death of his mother and his acquisition of a prized .50-caliber machine gun.

The dynamics keep shifting from the Olympics and beyond to the entirely unprovoked climax, a very sorry affair indeed. It's a sick, twisted story, which is to the credit of the filmmakers for having made fascinating, rewarding and absolutely worth telling. The thorough exploration of the depths of human nature in this elemental story might have pleased Dostoevsky; there is the predator who overcompensates for physical weakness via psychological and financial power and two very different kinds of victims, both strong in body but one emotionally weak, the other entirely self-confident. Shrinks could have a field day with all the complicated dynamics running though these relationships, which help make the drama such a rich experience.

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Miller gets it all done here; the hushed power of old money comes through loud and clear in the physical setting of the du Pont estate, the manner of the staff and the arbitrariness of the heir's decisions. The quiet rhythms of the story are at one with the ripplings of the nuances between the men; few films are as loaded with, and benefit from, churning subtext such as this one. For a story that unwinds over nearly a decade, the director, along with his writers and three editors, achieve a very fine balance both in the rhythms and overall shaping of the drama.

While Carell dominates with his unexpected performance, he is superbly backed up by his co-stars. Playing a young man who doesn't have a clue how to articulate his feelings and suffers for it, Tatum is a smoldering, festering piece of emotional raw meat, able to be manipulated this way and that by his benefactor. You feel his pain. As the older and exceptionally capable older brother, Ruffalo bestows his character with a profoundly genial nature that suggests that no one could possibly dislike this guy, much less be provoked to murder him. But he had emotional wealth, instant likeability and physical capacity, things John du Pont could never buy.

Production: Annapurna Pictures
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenwriters: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Producers: Megan Ellison, Bennett Miller, Jon Kilik, Anthony Bregman
Executive producers: Chelsea Barnard, Ron Schmidt, Mark Bakshi, Michael Coleman, Tom Heller
Director of photography: Greig Fraser
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Editors: Stuart Levy, Conor O'Neill, Jay Cassidy 

Music: Rob Simonsen

No rating, 135 minutes