Nov. 19 2014 03:00 PM

Mark Ruffalo is astonishing in Bennett Miller's humorless sports film

Steve Carell, Steve Carell’s nose and Channing Tatum

There's nothing warm about Foxcatcher. Bennett Miller's humorless true-crime story exists solely in a frigid state where brooding male characters crave justification from the world around them. Displaying an oppressive moodiness that matches its intense subject matter, Bennett's snowglobe vision drains the color out of every frame to express an extreme level of self-seriousness. After a while, there's little room for the dramatic interactions to breathe, leaving the viewer just as psychologically confined as the lead characters.

When we first see former Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) preparing for a low-end speaking engagement at a local school, grating and ominous string notes play over the score. Tatum's slumped posture and pronounced under-bite confirm the actor's desire to go full method with his performance. A bundle of nerves that's ready to snap, Mark lives in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), despite both men winning gold medals at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. The cause of Mark's resentment remains ambiguous; what's perfectly clear is that he's felt underappreciated for years.

One day, Mark gets a phone call from an associate of Mr. John du Pont (Steve Carell), asking if he'd be interested in training fulltime at the billionaire's Foxcatcher estate near Valley Forge. Heir to one of the oldest and most influential American companies of the 20th century, du Pont is a self-professed patriot who's fascinated with wrestling and the power of sport to mold the national psyche. But there's a nefarious undertone to his generosity toward Mark; as the two spend more time together sequestered on the compound, du Pont's motivations become more self-serving and disturbing.

Based on the true story of the Schultz brothers and du Pont that ended in homicide in 1996, Miller has reconfigured the narrative to be a statement on unbridled male insecurity set amid the waning days of the Reagan administration in 1987. From a narrative standpoint, du Pont and Mark are constantly training in anticipation of the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, an event that represents both men's chance to retain their long-lost self worth. But Foxcatcher isn't your normal sports film. While it pays attention to the techniques of wrestling, it uses these details to explore the clash of male bodies permanently rooted in anxiety.

The strange and sometimes dim relationship that develops between Mark and du Pont becomes a symbol for a kind of skewed mentorship that could apply to both sporting and military life. These principally masculine experiences are intertwined in Foxcatcher through du Pont's involvement with government contracts and weaponry by way of his family name. Violence underlines nearly every scene, whether it's du Pont attempting to wrestle Mark to the ground during an impromptu training session or the prominent placement of a .50-caliber bullet on du Pont's desk.

While Foxcatcher may spend much of its running time with Mark and du Pont jockeying for psychological control, Dave becomes an equally essential part of the film's tragic look at brotherhood deformed. Ruffalo steals nearly every scene, exhibiting a genuine vulnerability and concern for his broken brother while also expressing a willing naïveté to the lengths with which du Pont will go to achieve his dream of being a coach. Carell's prosthetic nose might get all the attention come awards time, but Ruffalo's quiet and sobering turn contains far more complexity.

"I talk about America," du Pont smugly states to Mark during their first interaction, but he doesn't speak for America. Foxcatcher—which opens Friday, Nov. 21—looks at how delusion becomes amplified when grown under the veil of privilege. What's more interesting, however, is how the blue-collar experience transcends this arrogance and misuse of power through iron will and dedication. One of the Schultz brothers understands this far better than the other, but the movie isn't nearly as interested in his story. 

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