Review: Channing Tatum’s incendiary work is the highlight of the chilly ‘Foxcatcher’

One of the most perverse truths in this world is that we are frequently drawn to the things and the people we cannot have. There are few pains more piercing and more pervasive than the heartbreak of not being able to be with that certain person, and it's not something rational or easy to explain. All of us, at some point in our lives, have felt that magnetic pull, and all of us, at some point in our lives, have felt that same bitter sting when we realize that we will not, in fact, get our fairy tale ending.

Not all of us go homicidal about it, though.

Bennett Miller's “Foxcatcher” tells a true-life story about a strange, disturbing relationship between Olympic gold medal winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and billionaire weirdo John du Pont (Steve Carell), and it is a chilly, unnerving, unblinking take on the events. Miller has made a career out of telling true-life stories, and he is drawn to stories about people at defining moments in their lives. Truman Capote stumbling into the story that ended up becoming his masterpiece. Billy Beane putting his theories, and his career, to the test. And now he turns his dispassionate eye to a seedy, sad little story, and he once again wrangles some remarkable performances out of his cast in the process.

Channing Tatum, who continues to prove that his recent work is no fluke, is positively transformed as Mark Schultz, and the same is true of Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz, Mark's older brother. Watching the two of them walk, they look like bears on their back legs or wary apes, constantly circling each other and looking for a point of attack. Tatum's lower jaw appears to have permanently been locked forward, and it changes his whole face. It also makes him look like he's constantly brooding, angry at the world.

Mark is a gold-medal-winning Olympian when we meet him at the start of the film, as is Dave, but there's still a constant feeling that Dave is the star and Mark is always in his shadow, and that's the exact feeling that John du Pont preys on when he first reaches out to Mark. Du Pont is a wrestling fan, and wants to have his own team, and he's willing to pay to make it happen. From the moment we meet du Pont, he is so obviously creepy that it gives the movie an upsetting inevitability. He looks at Mark Schultz and he sees someone who is everything du Pont wants to be, and more importantly and more upsettingly, he is everything du Pont wants.

As much as it's about anything, “Foxcatcher” is about the rot of privilege, the insidious way it can curdle someone. John du Pont is a truly grotesque person when we meet him, and Miller, working from the nearly minimalist screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, shows us why. Just a hint, but enough. We meet his withholding mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, and we see that John's money has allowed him to always indulge his interests fully, moving from train set to bird watching to half-naked oiled young men covered in muscles. It's that last one where things get difficult, because people aren't just something you can collect because you have enough money… or are they? Du Pont finds himself frustrated when Mark agrees to join the Foxcatcher wrestling team but Dave turns him down. “You can't buy Dave,” Mark tells him, and the tiny ghost of a smile that flashes across Carell's prosthetically-enhanced face in reply is chilling.

The film is expertly made across the board, with Greig Fraser's cinematography serving as perfect icy counterpoint to the spot-on-perfect production design by Jess Gonchor. And yet… at the end, I am left feeling that I glanced across the surface of “Foxcatcher” instead of sinking into it. There's a narrative decision in the third act that makes perfect sense in terms of plot mechanics and theme, but it still removes Channing Tatum from the film for a good half-hour, and that's a miscalculation. While Carell is fascinating at du Pont, he's not the one that the audience is drawn to, and Ruffalo's not ever given enough time to become as fully-realized as Tatum. It's easy to get fixated on the transformation that Carell undergoes, and the make-up by Mark Nieman and his team is so good that Miller's able to shoot him in unforgiving close-up, every damaged twitch of du Pont's face revealing who he truly is. But Tatum's the one who turns himself inside out here, and there are long stretches of the film where it's just Mark onscreen that are emotionally brutal and almost too hard to watch. These performances are beyond reproach, which makes it even stranger that the film never quite turns into the crushing experience it feels like it should be.

If nothing else, “Foxcatcher” serves as an example of how you can make every choice right and still not quite pull it off, one of those terrifying truths about art. I would absolutely recommend that anyone who likes smart adult drama see the film for all the individual pieces, even if there's some unquantifiable something missing from the film as a whole.

“Foxcatcher” is in theaters now.