Funny guy Steve Carell dons prosthetic teeth and nose for “Foxcatcher,” transforming himself into the fabulously wealthy and seriously unhinged John du Pont, a convicted murderer who died in prison in 2010.
He’s flanked in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, both of whom give career-high performances.
Yet despite this terrific acting (or because of it), “Foxcatcher” is a squirm-worthy experience. We know going in that it will end badly, but Carell and writer/director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) up the ante by creating a mood of queasy uneasiness that slowly builds in intensity until you want to jump out of your skin.
Which puts this critic in the weird position of subtracting points because the movie was too effective. At the risk of seeming a philistine, it is difficult to wholly recommend a movie that makes one feel so uncomfortable for two hours-plus.
The story begins in the mid-’80s with wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum), who with his older brother Dave (Ruffalo) was a big winner at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
While Dave is a family man with a decent gig teaching and coaching at a university, the unmarried, solitary Mark seems to be circling the drain as a not-terribly-bright jock whose glory days are behind him. He’s reduced to donning his gold medal to give talks to elementary school kids for a few bucks.
Enter the mysterious John du Pont, a ferret-like individual who invites Mark to become part of his Team Foxcatcher, a privately funded wrestling community the multimillionaire maintains on his vast estate.
Mark is immediately snowed by John’s wealth and offer to subsidize his training. Yeah, his new benefactor is reclusive, even creepy, but he has a pretty good spiel about reclaiming America’s greatness with the world’s best wrestling team.
Eventually Mark will get brother Dave to pull up stakes and relocate to Foxcatcher. But before that happens a weirdly twisted relationship develops between the malleable Mark and his new mentor.
As a member of one of America’s oldest and richest families, John is acutely aware that he was born with the proverbial silver spoon. His wrestling mania, we come to see, is a direct response to the affection his chilly mother (Vanessa Redgrave) has for thoroughbred horses. John is jealous of those horses and hopes that by proving himself a leader of men — not just any men, but Olympic-caliber wrestlers — he can finally impress Mama.
His money has been able to buy everything but satisfaction, and his efforts at self-aggrandizement border on the pathetic. He produces self-congratulatory “documentaries” about himself. At one point he participates in wrestling competitions for over-50 athletes; it’s painfully obvious that his opponents have been paid to throw the matches.
Most of these red flags flap unnoticed around Mark’s cauliflowered ears. Dave, on the other hand, is savvy enough to see that something’s not quite right in John’s desperate need for acknowledgment. Perhaps his refusal to pay due homage is why things turn deadly.
Watching the trailers for “Foxcatcher,” one is struck by the spectacular makeup that renders Carell the actor invisible. But the transformation is far more than physical. Carell cannily navigates his character’s contradictions — the brutal power that comes with almost unlimited wealth, the anxious sense of unworthiness, the yearning for accomplishment.
With his Michael Scott on TV’s “The Office” Carell cornered the market on uncomfortable humor. Here he nails uncomfortable tragedy, the crisis of a man who has everything — and nothing.
There’s something deeply sad at work in “Foxcatcher,” with Tatum and Carell portraying men who are painfully out of sync with the rest of the world. Beside them, Ruffalo’s Dave seems an icon of mental health.
Miller’s direction is quiet and unobtrusive. His camera is observational, slightly detached, almost clinical. He makes no pronouncements about his characters, but simply lets us watch and come to our own conclusions.
Conclusions that at best are deeply disturbing.
Rated R | Time: 2:14