Cannes Check 2014: Bennett Miller’s ‘Foxcatcher’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, a film we've been waiting to see for some time now: Bennett Miller's “Foxcatcher.”

The director: Bennett Miller (American, 47 years old). The film may be one of the biggest-name selections in Competition, but in festival auteur terms, Miller is one of its least seasoned entrants — “Foxcatcher” is only his third narrative feature, and his first to appear at one of the European majors. That said, he's certainly made the other two count. Born and raised in New York, he attended high school with future collaborator Dan Futterman; together with Philip Seymour Hoffman, they attended they New York State Summer School of the Arts. Miller began in documentary filmmaking, debuting in 1999 with the feature “The Cruise,” which won him two awards at the Berlinale. Six years later, his narrative debut “Capote” reunited him with his NYSSSA colleagues and earned Miller a Best Director Oscar nomination. His first mainstream release, “Moneyball,” was a project inherited from Steven Soderbergh, and scored another Best Picture Oscar nod. He has directed commercials and music videos between features, while “Foxcatcher” further marks his preference for fact-based material.

The talent: Two of “Foxcatcher's” stars are names you wouldn't have expected to see on the Cannes red carpet a few years ago. Channing Tatum has graduated from “G.I. Joe” beefcake to credible leading man via a series of canny project choices, notably Steven Soderbergh's “Magic Mike,” while Steve Carell's trajectory from TV comedy star to, well, comedy star is looking to take another turn with a dark change-of-pace role here. Third lead Mark Ruffalo is a more established prestige presence, with an Oscar nod under his belt; the supporting cast ranges from the august legend (Vanessa Redgrave) to the upgrade-seeking ingenue (Sienna Miller) to the whoa-where-have-they-been B-lister (Anthony Michael Hall).

Miller takes his first production credit since “The Cruise,” alongside producer of the moment (and recent double Oscar nominee) Megan Ellison. His pal Futterman, who scored an Oscar nomination for writing “Capote,” is back on screenplay duty, this time in collaboration with E. Max Frye, an Emmy nominee for “Band of Brothers” best remembered for dreaming up Jonathan Demme's “Something Wild.” The work of Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty”) will be of interest to jury president Jane Campion, who gave him his big break on 2009's “Bright Star.” Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna (“Life of Pi”) also scored “Capote” and “Moneyball”; his work will also be heard in Atom Egoyan's Competition entry “The Captive.” Editors Stuart Levy and Conor O'Neill have both worked in documentary: they jointly scored an Emmy nod for last year's Rolling Stones doc “Crossfire Hurricane,” while O'Neill worked on “Murderball” and “Capitalism: A Love Story.” (Levy's narrative editing credits, meanwhile, range from “Any Given Sunday” to “Immortals.”) Oscar-nominated production designer Jess Gonchor worked on Miller's other features and is a favorite of the Coen brothers.

The pitch: You've probably heard it several times by now, given how long “Foxcatcher” has been on the radar: initially developed by Miller in 2007, the film was slated to premiere at AFI Fest last November before being delayed until 2014. This true-crime story, based on the autobiography of Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz, is a fascinating one, detailing how Schultz and his brother (and fellow wrestling champ) Dave befriended paranoid schizophrenic multimillionaire, naturalist and sports patron John du Pont, and how their relationship led to du Pont murdering Dave Schultz in 1996. Tatum and Ruffalo play Mark and Dave Schultz respectively; the role of du Pont, which one suspects is the film's baitiest, goes to Carell. Miller plays Mark Schultz's wife, while Redgrave plays du Pont's mother. The title, incidentally, refers to du Pont's vast Philadelphia estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Produced through Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, the film is the prize jewel in distributor Sony Pictures Classics' robust Cannes lineup.

The prestige: If you're talking Oscar prestige, this is through the roof, considering the A-list cast, Bennett's two-for-two record and Ellison's current hot streak. If you're talking Cannes prestige, it's a slightly different matter — Miller is one of only five Competition rookies in this year's lineup, and one of only two (alongside Argentine wild card Damian Szifron) who has never had a film at the festival before. “Capote” and “Moneyball” engendered widespread respect for the director, but it's unlikely the Cannes auteurists view him in an equivalent league to, say, Ceylan or the Dardennes.

The buzz: Very loud indeed, considering that Oscar talk for the film was in full swing last autumn. Being selected to open the AFI Fest was already a reasonably good sign; being shortlisted for the Palme d'Or is obviously a considerable step up. Sony Classics seem coolly confident about this one; the delay has only stoked anticipation. That won't necessarily make it a Cannes favorite — remember that films like “L.A. Confidential” and “No Country for Old Men” — left the Croisette empty-handed, but the campaign starts here.

The odds: See above. Cannes juries tend to resist mainstream American titles, even when they go down a storm with critics and audiences, because they'd rather give a leg up to films that need the gilding and publicity boost of a festival prize. (2007 jury president Stephen Frears admitted his panel felt little inclination to reward “No Country” since they agreed it'd be amply honored in the future.) That factor, combined with Miller's newbie status, would appear to make “Foxcatcher” a long-ish shot for the Palme d'Or — Jigsaw Lounge and Paddy Power have it at 22-1 and 16-1 respectively. A likelier outcome is that the film is recognized for its screenplay, or possibly Carell's performance, but I suspect reviews will be the principal reward here.

The date: “Foxcatcher” premieres on Monday, May 19.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll profile one of the Competition's most unexpected selections, and its second female-directed film: Alice Rohrwacher's “The Wonders.”