Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in FoxcatcherFOXCATCHER

Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher isn't a horror movie, per se. There are no bogeymen, no cats jumping out from the shadows, and, with one crucial exception, very little bloodletting beyond that which could be incurred on a wrestling mat. Yet when I caught the film this weekend, it sure seemed like one, considering the collective gasp that greeted the climax's simple yet surprising appearance of a handgun. Actually, it was more of a swallowed shriek than a gasp - the sort of involuntary sound you'd make if you were fearing the worst and the worst came, only far sooner, and scarier, than you were anticipating.

I'd previously viewed and loved Miller's latest in the Chicago area over Christmas, so on a scene-by-scene basis, I was prepared for what was coming in this sad, disturbing tale of billionaire John du Pont and Olympic wrestlers and brothers Mark and David Schultz. But like a recurring nightmare that terrifies you, yet somehow also calms you, the minute you enter it, I found Foxcatcher an even more edgy, unsettling, and strangely satisfying experience on a second go-round. I say "strangely" because the movie, with its spare, cryptic script by Dan Futterman (who wrote Miller's Capote) and E. Max Frye, seems almost designed to be unsatisfying - a true-crime drama in which motives remain elusive, and characters stop speaking at the exact moments you most need them to talk. This reticence, though, ends up working in the film's favor. Miller's and the screenwriters' brilliantly sustained tension, echoed in the pitch-perfect performances of Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, turns us all into detectives - active participants in a mystery built out of insinuation, silence, and dread. That gasp I heard, to be sure, was the sound of shock. It was also the sound of a truly alert audience realizing that after two-plus hours of lingering suspense, this was the moment they'd been dreading all along.

Mark and David Schultz were both gold-medal winners in the 1984 Olympics, and as Foxcatcher opens, in March of 1987, Tatum's Mark has clearly seen better days. A hulking, miserable figure, Mark is first seen giving a stilted speech on America and excellence to a group of mildly interested grade-schoolers - a speech, we discover, that was originally meant to be given by Ruffalo's David. (When the school secretary asks if the $20 check should be made out to "Dave" or "David" Schultz, Mark morosely corrects her, awkwardly adding, "We both won gold.") But returning to his cramped Michigan apartment one night, with the number 13 on his T-shirt suggesting just how bad Mark's recent luck has become, he gets a phone call from an unfamiliar voice. Would Mark be interested, the personal assistant asks, in flying out to the Pennsylvania estate of John du Pont (Carell)? Because du Pont has something he'd like to discuss with him.

Steve Carell in FoxcatcherAfter being helicoptered in, passing over the same Valley Forge that decorates a painting on Mark's wall, the athlete meets du Pont - a middle-aged man with disconcerting vocal rhythms and an enormous nose constantly held aloft, suggesting he can gauge human weakness by sniffing it. Following some initial flattery and sentiments, shared by Mark, about America's future, du Pont comes to his point: He wants to sponsor and coach a wrestling team for the upcoming world championship - with the hopes of doing the same for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul - and wants Mark to train and live there at the Foxcatcher Farm estate. Relaying the offer to his brother, Mark says it's a dream come true: a personal sponsor, a residential upgrade, and an annual salary of $25,000. ("He said name your price, and I said the highest price that was in my head.") David, a wrestling coach and grounded family man with a wife and two kids, isn't so sure; something about this seems fishy. But he sees how newly happy his brother is, so he sends Mark off with his blessing and a hug. Mark moves to the estate. A wrestling team is assembled. Du Pont begins, in his unqualified way, to "coach." And then things start getting weird.

I'll avoid getting into just how weird, even though the facts of Foxcatcher's true story are available through a simple Wikipedia perusal. But what happens in the narrative is far less important than what actions mean for its central characters: the earnest, confused Mark, seeking a father figure and escape from his older sibling's shadow; the secure, concerned David, who wants only the best for his beloved little brother; and the cagey, frightening du Pont, desperately lonely and craving the approval of his eternally disappointed mother (Vanessa Redgrave, extraordinary in her extended cameo). I registered it on a first viewing, but it wasn't until a second that I really paid attention to how minimally populated Miller's film is. Even with roles for Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Sienna Miller (doing much more, with much less, than in American Sniper), and others, I think the supporting cast has maybe 50 lines of dialogue among them. Foxcatcher, though, doesn't feel the least bit hampered by its narrow focus on the three leads - not with those leads as sublime as they are here.

Tatum plays inexpressiveness with astounding expression, which isn't quite as oxymoronic as it sounds. That early scene in the grade school establishes how little Mark likes to talk, and we feel the man's crippling unease when forced to give an introductory speech honoring du Pont at a blue-blood dinner. But Mark is always listening, and Tatum's greatness lies in making us realize that the character is absorbing everything yet fundamentally unable to verbalize how any of it makes him feel. Seeing Mark suffer through a humiliating "coaching session" with du Pont, or, in Foxcatcher's most agonizing scene, watching him attempt to destroy his body following a failed match, your heart bleeds for this traumatized athlete whose shame has made him nearly mute. (I'll need to watch the film again to be sure, but I don't think Mark utters a single word during his last 45 minutes on-screen.)

Without his having much dialogue to help guide you, you know Tatum's Mark - just as you know Ruffalo's David, who makes consideration and kindness so vivid that they feel like states of grace. Toward the end of the movie, Ruffalo has a scene in which David has to give a testimonial on du Pont's leadership skills for a documentary, and David's wrenching discomfort as he tries to come up with something, anything, complimentary to say may be the actor's, and the film's, finest moment. With David too decent to speak the truth and too concerned for his brother not to lie, this sequence would be unbearable if not for Ruffalo's lovely, tender humor suggesting how laughably ridiculous David finds his position - which just makes it all the more horrible when he faces the camera and says, with as little emotion as he can muster, "John du Pont is a mentor to me."

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in FoxcatcherWhat Tatum and Ruffalo do in Foxcatcher is magical. (And they're magical together; I've never before seen actors play brothers with the sort of unembarrassed physical intimacy on display here.) What Carell does, meanwhile, is utterly extraordinary. Much has been made about the nose, of course, which along with du Pont's pallid, liver-spotted complexion and rotting teeth make this familiar comic actor nearly unrecognizable. Yet what most fascinated me, especially on a second viewing, were Carell's eyes. Robert Shaw has that incredible monologue in Jaws in which he describes the shark's orbs as "lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes ...", and that's what du Pont has here; he'll stare and stare, and you have no idea if he's even seeing what he's staring at.

But that's not just an exquisite contact-lens effect. That's Carell, who doesn't fill his role with personality so much as he drains it of all personality. And it's Carell who keeps you so on edge throughout the film; watching the man vacantly recognize his gradual abandonment by Mark, or the admiration the other wrestlers have for David, du Pont's unblinking silences simmer with ... what? Disdain? Incomprehension? Rage? It's a risky thing, especially in a leading role, to give an audience so little concrete understanding about a character's inner workings. (Which is why Carell's Best Actor nomination, though undeniably deserved, feels so uncharacteristic for the Academy - du Pont is hands-down the least empathetic figure to wind up in the category since Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, who was at least a charming murderous cannibal.) But Carell makes inscrutability hypnotic, and more than a little terrifying; with masterful restraint, the actor paints a perverse portrait of du Pont that lets you fill out the full measure of the man's perversity in your head.

Foxcatcher may feature more uncomfortable-bordering-on-excruciating scenes than any recent film, and certainly any recent good film, I can think of: a drunken du Pont making hideously inappropriate efforts at being "one of the guys" with the wrestlers in his trophy room; Mark's self-loathing leading to a heedless binge on room-service food and candy bars; du Pont showing off for his mother with some worthless bits of coaching, and watching the mortified woman as she quietly slips out the door. But even the most difficult scenes to watch are loaded with reasons you must (Miller's superb compositions, the character-defining mise-en-scène, those superb performances), while composer Rob Simonsen's haunting, sinister score - which occasionally presents itself as just a single, protracted note played on cello - provides reasons not to plug your ears, either. A horror movie for those who tend to avoid horror movies, and also those who don't, Foxcatcher is not to be missed.

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