Steve Carell rules Cannes with impressive ‘Foxcatcher’ performance

CANNES – Sometimes directors live in vacuum. You work on a movie for months, you become ingrained with it. That means other films, performances, life events pass you by. Keep that in mind when you see quotes from Bennett Miller that he'd never seen Steve Carell “give material evidence that he could do [anything] like” his performance in “Foxcatcher.” Because, frankly, that's not the case.

After the drama screened for critics this morning, Carell had effectively swept the air out from under the festival's hyped pretty boys Robert Pattinson, Ryan Gosling and his own co-star, Channing Tatum. Carell is transformative in a career-best turn as John du Pont, but he's always shown signs of a broader range of talent than just playing the funny guy from “40-Year Old Virgin.” Whether serious roles in films like “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The Way, Way Back” or his character work in everything from “Anchorman” to “Dinner With Schmucks,” most observers could have guessed this was in the former “Daily Show” star's wheelhouse. 

“I think it's really the same approach you take to a comedy anyway,” Carrell said during the official festival press conference. “I don't think characters in films know they are in a comedy or a drama. I think they are just characters in a film. I think the same applied to this. I didn't approach it as a drama, necessarily. It was just a story and a character in this story.”

“Foxcatcher” centers on the intriguing and perhaps still unclear relationship between the wealthy du Pont family member and gold-medal winning wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz.  In the mid-80s, du Pont created “Team Foxcatcher,” a privately funded wrestling team meant to be a home to the United States' world championship and Olympic hopefuls. It eventually led to tragedy at du Pont's hand, but why the story ended so dramatically has been conjecture on even those people close to all three men. Du Pont's public life, however, provided Carell with a abundance of material to inform his character.

“There is a lot written about John du Pont and his family and his legacy,” Carell said. “Beyond that there is a lot of video footage on him. He commissioned documentaries about himself and his life and his interests. That was sort of a treasure trove. With Bennett and the rest of the cast we were sort of able to decide internally what this character's motivation was and what his demons might have been.”

Carell is now officially in the Oscar mix, but he isn't the only “Foxcatcher” actor who will get attention during the awards season. Tatum who plays the troubled younger Schultz brother, Mark, will also see his own share of awards attention (whether it amounts to anything in the long run remains to be seen). Both he and Ruffalo worked for over five months wrestling, eating, sleeping and finding out as much as they could about the legendary wrestlers. The “Magic Mike” star quickly realized this was one film where the dramatic process would play itself out on set.

“You can take the physical things about how someone walks or the pays eccentrics, but I think I came in with a plan and I was really prepared,” Tatum said. “I felt like after the first day, I ruined it. I felt like I hadn't done anything right. What I realized it's that you keep digging and trying to find the truth. We'd spend hours trying to figure out how can we find it? How can we find the truth in it? You have to give yourself over to it and let it come through in all the different stages of what making a movie is.”

While Tatum was able to meet the real Mark Schultz, Ruffalo and Carell didn't have the same luxury. That didn't stop Ruffalo from reaching out to the people who knew David Schultz the best.

“Very early on I met one of Dave's closest friends who was living with him on Foxcatcher for six years and he really became my guide and tech adviser,” Ruffalo said. “We also became very friendly with Nancy Schultz and her children. And Bennett was inviting us to bring in stories and reflections or epiphanies as it related to the story as well. We were sort of on an investigative journalism approach to telling the story.”

And now, some quick awards season analysis…

Delayed from a planned December release because of a crowded awards season, “Foxcatcher” now finds itself a major early player in this year's upcoming race. No matter what category Carell is slotted in, he's currently a favorite for a nomination (more on that later). Tatum may also have a shot at a nod, but it's less clear. A Golden Globe slot would certainly not surprise for a number of reasons and possibly a Spirit Award nod (although the movie looks like it cost more than Film Independent's $20 million budget threshold).

Gauging Best Picture prospects feels dubious at this point, but based on the critical reaction, it's certainly possible. Last year “Inside Lewyn Davis” was close to winning the Palme d'Or, but by January it couldn't win over the Academy as it did critics. “Foxcatcher” is a much different movie in many respects, but it's also similar in that it leaves you somewhat cold when all is said and done. That hasn't hurt other recent Best Picture nominees, but it's worth remembering as the hype builds as we head into the start of the season.

Look for complete Cannes coverage all this week on HitFix.