“Do you have any idea who I am?” asks Steve Carell in his almost-certain-to-be-Oscar-nominated role as John Eleuthère du Pont, seated on a couch in the du Pont family’s trophy room across from Channing Tatum, who plays 1984 Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz.
Not only does Mark not know this odd man with the cold, dead eyes and unnaturally large proboscis, but we—the audience—have difficulty spotting the gifted comic actor playing him. In this true-crime drama, Carell is nearly unrecognizable, with his head and hands covered in liver spots, a graying hairpiece, grotesque dentures and a prominent prosthetic nose that he uses to guide his performance, sticking it forward like the beak of a hawk. Or perhaps another breed of bird…
“Call me ‘Eagle,’ ” du Pont tells the big lug. “Or ‘Golden Eagle.’ ”
For his part, Tatum is also outfitted with a bulbous extension on the tip of his nose, along with false cauliflower ears. The makeup in Foxcatcher is an unconvincing distraction, a miscalculation by director Bennett Miller, the talented director of Capote, who’d resisted burying Philip Seymour Hoffman under latex when he steered the late, great performer toward a Best Actor win as the flamboyant, soft-spoken writer.
Like Hoffman before him, Carell adopts a voice unlike anything we’ve ever heard from him, a lilting monotone that’s as vacant as du Pont’s eyes. It’s a deliberately creepy, off-putting performance, so it’s unfortunate that Miller decided to disguise his well-known leading men so much, especially when they’re delivering such strong work. In his last picture, Moneyball, he didn’t feel the need to physically transform Brad Pitt into Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager. He simply let Pitt lead with his own inimitable features (and propensity for eating onscreen) and earn an Oscar nomination for his efforts.
Beyond his nose and ear extensions, Tatum can’t resist jutting out his jaw as Mark, seething with mostly silent rage as he lives in the shadow of his older brother Dave, who also won the gold for wrestling in ’84. He’s played by a bearded Mark Ruffalo, who gives the film’s best performance while undergoing the subtlest transformation, his hair thinned in front, a bald spot added in back. Dave is the more successful, likable Schultz sibling, a family man and gym owner who’s happy to hear that the underemployed Mark is being offered a chance to prepare other Olympic hopefuls for the 1988 games at du Pont’s Foxcatcher Farm, a massive estate in suburban Philadelphia.
After that initial meeting in the trophy room—a testament to the thoroughbred racing triumphs of du Pont’s late father—Mark accepts the coaching job, and du Pont rather unnaturally tries to position himself as a Mephistophelean father figure to the floundering athlete. “I don’t want you to be in the shadow of your brother,” he says, seductively offering Mark a check for $10,000 on top of his regular salary, which Mark is hesitant to accept. “No, you earned it,” says du Pont in his soft lilt. “We’re friends.”
Du Pont tells Mark that he had only one friend while growing up, but when he was 16, he discovered his mother had been paying the other child to spend time with her awkward son. Some family traits are inherited.
As such, it’s only fitting that the increasingly eccentric, erratic heir to a fortune built on gunpowder manufacturing would begin waving a gun around, firing it nonchalantly into the ceiling of his state-of-the-art training facility while his wrestling team silently continues practicing.
Much of the film is laced with such darkly humorous moments, but the comedy only becomes overt during a few sequences. Take the one set in a helicopter en route to a high-society function, where du Pont offers his “friend” cocaine while coaching him on how to introduce him as an “ornithologist/philatelist/philanthropist,” a phrase the two volley back and forth in a rapid-fire patter of drug-fueled chatter.
The growing homoeroticism that develops between them is distressing to du Pont’s mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), a horse breeder who considers wrestling a “low sport.” She’s frail but nevertheless looks great, considering the real Jean died before many of the events of Miller’s film took place.
As Mark begins to prove a disappointment to du Pont, he offers a coaching position to Dave, setting the stage for a tragedy that is forecast in the film’s gray skies and the snowy onset of winter, evocatively captured on film by Greig Fraser. It’s a shame that the horror that unfolds deviates so far from reality, at least when it comes to chronology. Writers E. Max Frye (Something Wild) and Dan Futterman (Oscar nominee for Capote) set the film’s events during the course of a year, mostly during the buildup to the 1988 Olympics. Not only have they resurrected a du Pont matriarch to fit their script’s pathology, but the climactic tragedy that’s shoehorned into the film’s final 10 minutes didn’t actually transpire until 1996. It makes the central supposition of what may have fueled the crime that took place at Foxcatcher Farm feel as false as the nose on Carell’s face.
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall and Vanessa Redgrave. Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Directed by Bennett Miller. At Boston Common,
Kendall Square and in the suburbs.