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  1. Life & Culture

Review: 'Foxcatcher' a chilly thriller done well

Steve Carell, left, plays John E. du Pont, who enlists Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his Olympic gold medal-winning sibling Dave for a vanity project.
Steve Carell, left, plays John E. du Pont, who enlists Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his Olympic gold medal-winning sibling Dave for a vanity project.
Published Jan. 14, 2015

Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is a true-life crime story that the director's previous subject, Truman Capote, might have written about: murder in cold blood, mirroring the American nightmare. It is a case study in steady dread, even if viewers know who killed whom.

Like Capote's benchmark of nonfiction journalism In Cold Blood, Miller probes and provokes, seeking the elusive "why."

Foxcatcher is also about murder where it's least expected, among 1-percenters paying others to do their dirty work. Chores of insanity are left to themselves. In 1996, John E. du Pont of the du Ponts, an empire of chemicals and weapons, took it upon himself to pump three bullets into an Olympic gold medalist. In a sick twist on family tradition, du Pont was a cocaine addict: more chemicals and weapons.

It is the stuff of sensationalism, yet Miller will have none of that. Foxcatcher is a chilly thriller, with a screenplay understanding the value of silence and actors at times expressing more than words could. Its violence is swift and understated, and red flags are raised with the discretion of an auction paddle.

Du Pont is played by Steve Carell, a casting choice as initially odd as the character that pays off handsomely. Carell's features, so familiar from comedic turns, are hidden under latex and contact lenses, his jocular voice pinched to an old-money lilt. It isn't a showy role; the horror of du Pont's behavior is how calmly he melts down. Neither is it the best performance in Foxcatcher.

That distinction goes to Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestling gold medalist du Pont recruits for a vanity project at Foxcatcher Farm, his family's Pennsylvania estate. Knowing nothing about wrestling, du Pont wants to finance a training center led by Mark and his sensible brother Dave (Golden Globe nominee Mark Ruffalo), also a gold medalist.

The brothers' bond — beautifully established in a wordless warmup session — is further strained by du Pont's offer. Despite his accomplishments, Mark is still Dave's younger brother in their hometown. Tatum makes this inferiority fascinating, shy, brutish and thin-skinned, so wrestling-obsessed that he rarely walks without ducking for an imaginary opponent's leg. Single moments say plenty, as when Mark addresses disinterested school kids, letting his gold medal do the talking.

Du Pont and Mark are damaged by their destinies, one to be rich in a country where that means untouchable, and another in the shadow of his brother. They're drawn together by parallel needs: Mark to be a champion, and du Pont to be connected with one, to leave his legacy in the Foxcatcher trophy room. Eventually their individual needs become darker and murkier, and murder will out.

Miller unravels this story with the grim inevitability of a death row vigil, but not without flashes of sly humor, like du Pont's reaction to Mark's claim that Dave can't be bought. Carell's pause, expression and "huh" are a perfect example of Foxcatcher's understatement, its most effective tool. Fifty years after In Cold Blood, and 10 after Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal, Miller does Capote justice again.

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Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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