Bennett Miller has carved out a pretty solid niche for himself: slow-burning character pieces based on extremely particular, real-life figures, whose peculiarities elicit breakout performances and critical acclaim for its stars. Muted, somber Phillip Seymour Hoffman turns brash socialite Truman Capote. Fart-joke Jonah Hill becomes socially-awkward savant Peter Brand. And Steve “Lovable Goofball” Carell inhabits schizophrenic, power-hungry John du Pont. Tonally, though, they couldn’t be more different. Capote was high-intensity, award-baity [almost melo-]drama, and Moneyball a rousing crowd pleaser with a relevant contemporary message. Foxcatcher is difficult and jarring: it won’t make you stand up and cheer but it also won’t permit you to cry. If there’s a decipherable message it’s pretty bleak.
It tells the true(ish) story of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), his acclaimed brother/trainer Dave (Mark Ruffalo), and John du Pont (Carell), the reclusive millionaire who promises to launch him out of Dave’s shadow. These are meaty, nuanced roles, and they’re almost perfectly captured. But like The Master taught me, masterfully telling something unpleasant is still unpleasant, and it can make for a rough couple of hours if you’re too committed to throw the audience a bone. Mark and John are impotently power-obsessed, and the relationship they form is twisted and chilling. Carell is scene-stealingly terrifying as a sort of patriotic, philanthropic Norman Bates, and Tatum his deeply repressed pupil; they’re incredible transformations, believable to the point of being suffocating. We get glimpses of warmth from (an equally fantastic) Ruffalo, but never enough to serve as real relief, especially if you’ve Wikipedia’d how things will eventually go down. The story is almost too crazy to be true, and Miller tells it with a confident voice and remarkable attention to detail. But it’s a cold, uncomfortable experience, and I’m not convinced it drove home a point enough to justify the difficulty. It’s easy to love the craft — the tone lingers for days — but in the moment, it’s tough to enjoy the product.