Review: Tatum, Ruffalo and Carell excel in evocative and unsettling ‘Foxcatcher’

CANNES – The will to win has rarely seemed more self-defeating than it does in “Foxcatcher,” a sinuous, methodical true-crime drama in which the moral and psychological rot sets in long before any crime is committed. Just as Bennett Miller”s first two features, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” were portraits of coolly driven individuals possessed by their own passion projects, so is this remarkable film — a study of sociopathic billionaire John du Pont”s quest to annex as much of America”s wrestling empire as money and ego could buy. But where Miller”s previous films culminated, however tortuously, in creation — of a landmark book, a formula that changes the future of baseball — aspiration here results only in lives literally and spiritually destroyed.

“Foxcatcher” announces upfront that it”s no regular sports movie, its opening credits accompanied by ghostly footage of a 19th-century fox hunt at the du Pont family”s eponymous Philadelphia estate Foxcatcher Farm — a pursuit of predatory cornering, not healthy sportsmanship. The sparse, zithering introductory strains of Mychael Danna”s score, meanwhile, are the tonal opposite of the sticky, ennobling strings you might expect from a story of two Olympic champions — and brothers, at that.

As played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively, Mark and Dave Schultz together have the makings of a walking American dream: hardscrabbling high achievers of decent demeanor and robust constitution, their physiques sturdy and tight as balloons inflated to bursting point. Gold medalists at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, aged just 25 and 23 respectively, they could be national heroes, but Miller”s film is swift to undercut that status: Mark is introduced to us delivering an uninspired motivational speech at a drab suburban elementary school, his young captive audience the first and last one that can be sold on the idealized American mythos. He”s paid a scant 20 dollars — “and zero cents,” the check-writer adds with dull relish — for his efforts, an indignity that doesn”t smart as much as filling in for his brother in the first place.

Younger, taller and more knucklishly handsome than chipper family man Dave, Mark has nonetheless endured a lifetime of being the less celebrated son. Baldly lit and bluntly framed, their joint wrestling practice sessions beautifully convey the fine line between love and envy on which their relationship stands, Tatum and Ruffalo grappling their way from a fraternal nuzzle to a threatening stranglehold. Theirs is a hairline fracture of tension ready to be mined into a greater rift by the first enterprising party.

Enter the insidiously enterprising du Pont (Carell), a hermetic wrestling enthusiast and aspiring coach who correctly identifies the junior sibling”s emotional vulnerability and swoops, luring him to his palatial pad and making an irresistibly generous offer to accommodate and train him for the upcoming Seoul Olympics. Asked to name his price, Mark demands a modest $25,000 — “It”s the highest number I could think of,” he says with heartbreaking naivete. Mark falls unreservedly for du Pont”s quasi-propagandistic sales pitch (in which he stresses patriotic virtue above all else) and is perplexed by the wilier Dave”s refusal to uproot his family and join him. Separation achieved, estrangement takes root.

It”s no secret that the complicated relationship between du Pont and the Schultz brothers ended with the self-styled coach, enraged by his failure to wholly possess them, gunning Dave down in his driveway in 1996. But the build-up to this dingy outcome, as meticulously researched and dramatized by Miller and screenwriters Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, is less an anatomy of a murder than a slow-burning study in self-mirroring seduction reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson”s “The Master” and, particularly, Steven Soderbergh”s “Behind the Candelabra,” in which a senior figure”s personal charisma is a far greater threat than any physical weaponry.

A sometime ornithologist with a beaky prosthetic nose to match, Carell”s du Pont is a figure whose self-evidently absurd vanity — this is a man who prefers to be addressed as “Golden Eagle” by his friends — doesn”t preclude his frightening powers of persuasion: when he senses Mark eventually resisting his grip, he instead plays on the older sibling”s protective instincts to paint both men into a cold corner. Deftly playing variations on one softly sinister note, Carell”s wittily grotesque performance fashions du Pont as the non-cartoon equivalent of C. Montgomery Burns — his feeble posture and listless, slurry vocal delivery a constant physical riposte to his delusions of grandeur.

Tatum and Ruffalo are no less superb. After “Magic Mike” and “21 Jump Street,” Tatum”s versatile instinct for locating the insecure heart of the all-American lunk should no longer surprise us, but he”s entirely wrenching here as a man with no sense of self beyond the ideal he”s been instructed to emulate; his violent yet externally muffled response when his winning streak is challenged climaxing is a stunning scene of self-injury. Ruffalo must maintain a more even emotional keel throughout, subtler flushes of fury gradually entering his performance. A scene in which he”s required to film a public video endorsement for du Pont — using “words he likes, like excellence, intensity and domination” — and finds himself at a physical loss to do so may be the film”s finest.

Returning to the atmosphere of persistent, wintery aggravation that marked “Capote,” Miller”s filmmaking has never been more sophisticated. Initially proving himself a painter of light in Jane Campion”s “Bright Star,” cinematographer Greig Fraser has since proven himself a brilliant shadow-player: each frame of the film pits misty pools of gray against the punchy American primaries of du Pont”s wrestling paraphernalia, turning them bilious and bloody.

If anything, the low-hanging ambience, immaculately sustained as it is, could stand a little more tonal ebb and flow — the film is never less than riveting at 130 finely-sanded minutes, but mood gradually swallows the characters” interior lives in an inexorable march toward tragedy. Perhaps that”s how it felt for the real-life victims of Foxcatcher Farm, living and dead. It”s never rationally explained how things came to such a drastic head between them, but the shiver of an imminent, distinctly American reversal of fortune is present from the first frame of this impressively oppressive film. Everyone”s a loser in “Foxcatcher,” even — or perhaps especially — when they win.