'Foxcatcher' wrestles with the American Dream

Bennett Miller's take on violence and weirdness in the U.S.

Thursday December 18, 2014 04:00 am EST

Bennett Miller's true crime biopic Foxcatcher has the setup of an American gothic. Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), despite being a gold medalist, languishes in the shadow of his more charismatic brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Seemingly out of nowhere, Mark finds an unlikely patron in eccentric zillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), who invites Mark to the family estate, Foxcatcher. Mark's first early scenes at the enormous, half-deserted property, ruled by bizarre aristocrats, plays almost like Jane Eyre recast with jocks.

Behind a beaky prosthetic nose, Carell makes John du Pont a singularly strange figure, with a whispery delivery and obsessions with wrestling, ornithology, and weapons. He receives deliveries of huge, working machine guns like a kid playing with life-size army toys. While gimmicky, Carell's performance proves undeniably fascinating, and at times shares the comical lack of self-awareness of "The Office's" Michael Scott. "My friends call me 'Eagle.' Or 'Golden Eagle.' Or 'John,'" he says at one point.

Tatum is terrific too, giving Mark a lumbering gait and a wary, heavy-browed expression. Between Mark's physical menace and emotional vulnerability, he seems completely unpredictable, and his scenes are rife with tension. For a while, the odd-couple relationship gives Mark the approval he craves and John an actual protégé. But when Dave, the "normal" one, enters the mix and Olympic prospects become more likely, the dynamic turns fatally unstable.

Having previously helmed Capote and Moneyball, Miller clearly has a fascination with different aspects of American iconography, and he's particularly interested in the violence and weirdness in U.S. history. In this case, Miller sets his directorial gaze on the estate near Valley Forge. The plot drifts a bit in the last act, and at times seems to be resting more on metaphor and insinuation than incident. But Foxcatcher definitely gives students of the American Dream something to wrestle with.

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