Steve Carell is “Wrestling With Madness” and a Possible Oscar
Director: BENNETT MILLER/2014
“Wrestling with Madness” is the title of a book by Tim Huddleston that covers the story of John Du Pont, and it is a title that I found to be a great fit for the byline of this review and an apt description of Steve Carrell’s performance, in particular, for the film Foxcatcher. In it, Carrell plays the eccentric millionaire and heir of the Du Pont family fortune. John Du Pont has always been fascinated with wrestling despite his mother’s objections to it being such a “low” sport. Using his wealth, John sought to recruit a team that would compete at the national championships and eventually be the training site for the U.S. Olympic team.
Foxcatcher is the film that documents this true story that takes place primarily in the lead-up to the 1988 Olympic games which were held in Seoul, South Korea. John Du Pont seeks out the down-on-his-luck Olympic Gold Medal Winner Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) and promises him a place to stay and a yearly salary with the opportunity to train and put together a group of wrestlers to be a part of “Team Foxcatcher”, named after the Du Pont Estate in Pennsylvania where they were to train.
Carrell’s Du Pont, it has been mentioned (even on the film’s poster), has a slow descent into madness much like the fictional Daniel Plainville (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. This is a justified comparison. The real-life Du Pont, like Plainville, is extremely ambitious despite his intent to convey a laid-back personality. Both men are driven to succeed no matter the cost. For Du Pont this includes the literal cost given the size of his fortune. Both involve the art of manipulation, and both are willing to hurt anyone who gets in their way.
Mark Schultz is a man without a true sense of identity. Having always lived in his older brother David’s shadow, Mark is always being confused for David who is also an Olympic Gold Medal Winner and considered one of the nicest guys in the sport. Du Pont wants to lure David to Foxcatcher as well, but when David cannot be influenced financially, Du Pont begins to drive a wedge between the two brothers as he lets Mark know that he is able to do things without his brother being there for him.
The real-life Nancy Shultz, the wife of David, described Du Pont’s methods, in an interview, as being very “cult-like” in terms of the isolation Du Pont would enact on the wrestlers he brought out to Foxcatcher, along with the paranoia that he exhibited. Often it was overlooked due to his eccentric nature, but in Carrell’s performance, we see an intentionality behind the eyes driving his plan forward, regardless of the obstacles he encounters. It is easy to sell people on your vision when you are throwing cash, alcohol, houses, and cocaine at them.
Carrell’s mesmerizing performance is one that will truly allow him to break out into any direction he wants to go in, in future roles. Here, he is methodical, creepy, and brilliant in his portrayal of this eccentric man. The film is extremely slow in its build-up but captivating as we watch in horror as Du Pont’s madness is wrestled with in each and every new situation. A natural loner, Du Pont is always in need of validation having received so little of it from his mother, Jean Du Pont, played here by the wonderful Vanessa Redgrave. Eventually, John Du Pont cannot tell the difference between those who truly like him and those who can’t stand him. Fueled by his paranoia, and inflated sense of purpose and vision, Du Pont is a man detached from reality in many respects. Carrell should receive Oscar attention for his performance, and justifiably so, as his character will stick with you long after the credits roll.
In addition to Carrell, the real surprise of Foxcatcher is the acting turn from Channing Tatum in his depiction of Mark Schultz. Tatum will be able to show this performance to 21 & 22 Jump Street partner Jonah Hill who has been able to break stereo-types himself in two strong performances that include Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street. This is Channing Tatum’s “Moneyball moment”, and one that he should be proud of.
Tatum plays Mark Shultz with a dark reserve of anger always ready to come out at a moment’s notice. The big chip that permanently resides on his shoulder stems a lot of the time from his jealousy over the attention David gets personally and professionally. But David is also the calming force in his life as well. When Du Pont begins to drive a wedge between them, he is both giving Mark an opportunity to succeed on his own out of David’s shadow, but is also removing Mark from the encouragement he gets from David being in his corner coaching and cheering him on. Channing Tatum is able to play this duality with an empathetic intensity, and surprisingly with a believable naivety when being manipulated by John Du Pont. He is also scary as well, when he is unable to handle his emotions, literally beating himself in the face and smashing things up when he is unable to cope. He makes the audience feel his pain.
Mark Ruffalo is also brilliant in his portrayal of David Shultz. He is a family man whose real focus is on his wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) and their children, yet on the wrestling mat he carries an intensity of his own. He is both a brilliant coach and a strategizer, and is more than willing to share his knowledge of the sport or his own moves with anyone. He also has street-smarts that allow him to catch on what people are truly wanting out of him. Ruffalo is able to balance these two sides of David Schultz effectively, showing that David is willing to put up with inconveniences much more so than Mark, especially if it helps him accomplish the bigger picture. Ruffalo is showing, through this performance and also from this year’s Begin Again, that he can have his cake and eat-it-too producing solid performances such as Foxcatcher before doing giant crowd-pleasers like the upcoming Avengers: The Age of Ultron.
“Wrestling with Madness” is a justified descriptor for this film, and not just because of its natural tie in to the sport that is at the front and center. It is also an indicator of what both John Du Pont and Mark Schultz are struggling against personally, as well as professionally. The question is what the ultimate effect of this madness will be on all involved. As David joins Mark at Foxcatcher to train, all three of these personalities clash propelling them, and the film, towards the dark conclusion that awaits.
Foxcatcher is a slow, yet powerfully acted film that will stick with you beyond its gut-wrenching conclusion. Sony Pictures Classics stands to be well-represented during the Oscar race from the performance here, as well as those in the film Whiplash, which they also produced. Foxcatcher, likeThere Will Be Blood, demonstrates how loneliness that is the product of obscene wealth, drugs, and paranoia can fuel the dangerous possibilities that lie within a man who is driven enough to succeed but too fragile emotionally to have anyone question their vision.