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Wrestling with the devil


Channing Tatum and Steve Carell give inspired performances in Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell give inspired performances in Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell give inspired performances in Foxcatcher

Early on in Foxcatcher, Channing Tatum stands in the doorway of a magnificent, antique-filled drawing room. Hulking and bull-necked, he hovers in the door frame, afraid to move forward, uncertain how to act. He ought to be, because Bennett Miller's doggedly gloomy drama explores the corruption that corrodes the souls of those who get mixed up with extreme wealth.

Foxcatcher is based on a true story, and Mr Tatum's character is Mark Schultz, a champion wrestler who's down on his luck. It's 1986, and although Schultz won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, along with his older brother Dave, Mark now lives in a shabby apartment and earns $20 here and there by showing his medal to schoolchildren. His sweaty training sessions with Dave (Mark Ruffalo) have an edge of desperation, as though Mark is beginning to suspect that his athletic success is meaningless.

Then he gets a phone call from a flunky representing one John du Pont, inviting Dave to a meeting in Pennsylvania. Bemused, he agrees, and is ferried by private jet to the Foxcatcher farm, a vast neo-Georgian mansion framed by a large, rolling estate. Mark, who's no brain surgeon, is overwhelmed by all this opulence, and perches nervously on the edge of a sofa as he waits for his host to appear.

When John du Pont (Steve Carell) waddles in, sniffing and slyly assessing Schultz's bulk, he does not exactly cut a heroic figure. A childless divorcée, John is heir to a vast fortune accumulated by ancestors whose gunpowder fuelled the American Civil War. He's a dilettante, who's spent most of his adult life collecting stamps, bird-watching and dabbling in this and that. But now he thinks he's finally found a purpose in life.

American wrestlers, he tells Schultz, are not being nurtured as they should, and the country's thunder is being stolen by better-resourced Eastern Bloc athletes. Du Pont wants to change all this by setting up an Olympic-standard training facility on his estate, and asks Mark to come and live at Foxcatcher, where he'll be paid a handsome wage for his services. For Mark Schultz, it seems like a dream come true, and he tries to persuade his brother to join him. But Dave is suspicious about du Pont, and advises his brother against getting mixed up with him.

The Schultz/du Pont saga actually took place over a decade or so, but in Bennett Miller's beautifully constructed drama their story is presented as one slow, seamless episode. Steve Carell, unrecognisable behind a monstrous prosthetic hooter, portrays du Pont as a shuffling, deluded megalomaniac.

Once his wrestling stable is up and running, he dons a tracksuit and poses as the athletes' trainer. He also bullies the Schultz's into participating in mortifying publicity videos in which du Pont stares, Churchill-like, into the camera and says things like "I am leading men, and I am giving America hope". This ought to be a funny moment but isn't, because there's a deadness in du Pont's eyes his associates would do well to be wary of.

Carell is outstanding in the role, though this should come as no surprise as the comic actor has been flirting with serious roles for some time now: he seems the odds-on favourite for the Best Actor Oscar. Mark Ruffalo's Dave Schultz gives Foxcatcher some much-needed humanity: he's excellent as an ordinary man confronted by madness, and Channing Tatum most effectively plays Mark Schultz as a wounded carthorse.

But somehow, John du Pont's vacuousness pervades Miller's film and leaves it seeming brilliant, but pointless. Du Pont is not an interesting maniac, and his obsessions have nothing to say about anything beyond their narrow story. This is not a film about America, or humanity, it's a film about an exceedingly wealthy lunatic, and is about as illuminating as that summary might suggest.

Irish Independent