Opens Fri., Dec. 19 at Sundance and Meridian. Rated R. 134 minutes.
Repeat after me: “Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.” Now imagine your future livelihood and independence depend on delivering that phrase correctly. Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist—it’s so easy, right? Only the wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who won gold in the 1984 Olympic Games, is having a little trouble with the words. Mark, to put it nicely, isn’t very bright. He’s got a puppy-dog earnestness; his ears have turned to cauliflowers after so much time on the mat; he’s accustomed to taking orders from his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who also won gold in ’84. Now Mark’s on his own, flying in a helicopter for the first time, doing cocaine for the first time, about to give a speech prepared by his new patron, the eccentric multimillionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), on whose helicopter he’s riding, whose coke he’s snorting. One more time: Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist. Du Pont keeps repeating the self-aggrandizing benediction to the point of absurdity—as if those words will somehow bestow the status he so desperately seeks as a leader of men. Only then, about midway through Bennett Miller’s clinically chilly true-crime tale, are we sure he’s insane.
Foxcatcher’s murderous outcome is never in doubt. One brother will perish and du Pont go to jail (where he died in 2010). There was the same kind of underlying criminal inevitability to Miller’s 2005 Capote, where the surprise lay in how a talented, frivolous writer created his unlikely masterpiece. Here, I’m sorry to say, there’s no such consolation. Foxcatcher is uniformly well crafted and acted, though Carell playing the villain isn’t really the selling point. There was never any reason to expect that he, a trained professional, couldn’t share scenes with the likes of Ruffalo and Vanessa Redgrave (playing du Pont’s patrician, disapproving mother). With his birdlike prosthetic nose, craned neck, and opaque, upper-toothed smile, Carrell’s du Pont remains a mystery, but not an interesting mystery. His character recedes into a dull void. He’s got no spark or intelligence (like Mark); and Dave, the only guy here with any good sense, is absent for half the movie. Du Pont makes for a hollow, creepy villain whose inferiority complex is too obvious and whose sexual orientation is oddly uncharted. What does he truly want from Mark, and what did Mark give him? Mark’s midfilm debauch, with hair grown out and blonde highlights added, suggests he’s become a rent boy. But if he and du Pont were ever lovers, this Schultz-family-authorized film isn’t saying.
Like Miller’s Moneyball, Foxcatcher is strongest on process: Dave and Mark methodically practicing their moves in a great, near-wordless scene that’s both tender and full of latent resentment; or Mark rolling and feinting alone on an open lawn—he doesn’t know how to respond to freedom, even while pining to “become my own person.” Certainly Tatum is becoming his own actor: Once mocked, like Mark, as a lunkhead, he’s also been given the chance in the Jump Street movies and Magic Mike to show inchoate currents beneath that bulging brow. Even if Miller can’t find a satisfying denouement for Foxcatcher, Mark becomes a clay-footed figure of inarticulate tragedy.