Heir to his family’s fortune John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) wants to use the ample money he has to create an environment where wrestlers, the stars of the sport he loves so much, can come and train. He secures Olympic gold medal winning Mike Shultz (Channing Tatum) as head trainer for the program he hopes will one day become the training ground for the Olympic wrestling team. Shultz leaves his training with his brother Dave (Ruffalo), and enters into a strangely intense friendship with the man who describes himself as his mentor and father figure, but who himself yearns for the approval of his distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave).
Director Bennett Miller is renowned for drawing career defining performances out of actors, from Jonah Hill in Moneyball to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. And indeed, it is the performances in Foxcatcher which seem to be gaining the most significant attention. Mark Ruffalo has long demonstrated he gives a good performance in everthing he is in, and Channing Tatum’s move away from romantic comedies to more serious character pieces (and also straight comedy as 21 Jump Street Showed) has in recent years made him an interesting casting choice, and this is certainly no end to that.
Carrell’s performance in Foxcatcher is a transformation. Inevitably when portraying someone that really existed and was in the public eye there is a sense of duty to capture a more personal element of them. Carrell is hardly recognisable in his dark portrayal of John Du Pont. Through prosthetics, make up, different skin tone, different face shape, Carrell not only looks the part but his entire demeanour is very different to that of the actor that many will recognise from Judd Apatow comedies and the US office. His entire way of holding himself, his entire celebrity identity disappears, no mean feat with a star of Carrell’s standing.
This is a film of immersive performances, something which only adds to the strange intensity which runs through its veins. The unsettling relationship between Mike Shultz and Du Pont is never overstated, never made explicit, but we still feel as though we are intruding on something incredibly intimate, almost to the point that you feel as though you want to leave the room, and leave them to it. It’s a strange relationship to view in terms of wrestling, a sport not only viewed as very manly but which relies a lot on body contact. The film has an oddly muted feel. Everything is quiet, unsettling. You sense throughout that something is a bit off, but something unexplainable.
And although we are privy to the innermost aspects of Shultz and Du Pont, their character and their friendship, neither of them are people you necessarily want to spend time with. The most likable character is Mike’s brother Dave, whose care and devotion for his brother is, despite all the pent up emotion, the most heart-breaking part of the film.
I didn’t know anything about these real life events, or wrestling prior to seeing the film. Although, for me, this made following some of the wrestling matches a bit hard to follow, unsure who was winning when and what the rules are, I knew I had to take to care to stay out the way of spoilers. My top tip is you do the same.