Glacial, passive, and modulated, Foxcatcher is a sinuous, swirling, smoke-black parable of toxic mentorism; a stunted and fiercely unhappy piece of work, straining hard to deliver home truths about a commonweal that has beaten itself out of shape.

Wrestler Mark Schulz is invited by multimillionaire heir John du Pont to move onto his wealthy estate and train at his state-of-the-art facility for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Flattered by the attention, Mark jumps at the opportunity, hoping to step out of the shadow of his revered brother, Dave, who takes on the role of coach, despite his nagging uncertainty of du Pont as eccentric benefactor and father figure.

The performances are hushed and mournful. Foxcatcher showcases a strong and sullen turn by Channing Tatum (Magic Mike, Side Effects) as Mark, and an even-better Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right) as Dave, who makes up an entire performance out of grace notes – through hesitation, delicacy, twitchiness as he circles the leading duo.

Entombed in makeup and a toucan nose, Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine), the same rubber-faced comedian who gave us the dim-witted meteorologist of Anchorman, is the real shock to the system. He delivers a commanding, compellingly creepy portrayal of a man with dead eyes and a cold heart, someone who’s grown up under a withering gaze, who watches over his underlings with the predatory gaze of an eagle, and whose effortful self-containment is second-guessed by a dangerous flicker in his eyes. Stiff, staring, alien, and pathetically funny, he’s a monster of American wealth, a coiled serpent in an ill-fitting tracksuit.

These performances are beyond reproach, which makes it even stranger that the film never quite turns into the crushing experience it should be. Du Pont’s meticulous, airless haven, referred to as the “big house,” may remind you of the mansion from Sunset Blvd. or the motel from Psycho. And as a dark drama masquerading as a sports movie, channelling The Wrestler and The Social Network, it’s most obvious yardstick is Raging Bull – an unfairly impossible measure of a film’s success.

Cannes Best Director winner Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) and his screenwriters thought through every scene, line, and minute of Foxcatcher, which proceeds like a well-constructed argument. The dialogue is spare, rich, and thorny, and essential at understanding the tightly wound triangle at its centre. Miller’s canniest achievement is his depiction of the precariousness of bonds, and how those bonds can shift drastically and imperceptibly. As detailed as a dust-covered oil painting, Foxcatcher is admittedly fascinating in its incremental layering of a bizarre and thoroughly warped character study.

Yet its reasoned and restrained approach – never less than careful and clever – and Greig Fraser’s centuries-old-mausoleum-inspired cinematography, not to mention the punishingly long running time, make for a feeling of funereal sobriety, exacerbated by the oppressive atmosphere of fatalism as it builds to its tragic climax. Foxcatcher reaches for big insights about American ambition and greed and the dangers of unchecked entitlement, while simultaneously treating its real-life subjects like the stars of a Greek tragedy.

As a result, the movie falls prey to the characters’ repression. Few dramas plumb the quirky, unsettling depths of human nature like Foxcatcher, but it proves impossible to embrace because of fundamental miscalculations in craft, set design, and makeup, along with a certain clumsiness in which it overstates its twisted patriotism (watch for the US flags and incessant cheering) and manipulates its sad story into a grand statement on the supposed lack of American values.

In sports, what Foxcatcher does is called “running out the clock.” The performances elevate the material majestically, but can’t bring it across the finish line. It’s basically one long, sick joke played at half speed, maddeningly indistinct, as if the necessary details remain somehow inaccessible to us, when a little less muting might have made it mesmerizing. Instead, Foxcatcher is a good character study with acting so fine that it’s irksome it’s not in the service of a real, emotional wallop. A win has rarely seemed more self-defeating.


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