'Foxcatcher' is a rigidly surreal masterpiece of sustained dread

"Foxcatcher," a viscous movie about the myth of American exceptionalism, really gets going when down-on-his-luck Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestling lug Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and John du Pont (Steve Carrell), a wrestling enthusiast and manipulative maniac millionaire and self-declared "patriot," start snorting coke in a helicopter on their way to Washington, D.C., to meet with a bunch of right-wing maniacs at a banquet. The American aristocrat (yes, he's of those du Ponts) forces Schultz to repeat his many titles in life ("Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist") over and over and over again, du Pont hoovering more coke in his big schnoz the whole time, intoning the words along with Schultz, the syllables folding onto one another, hubristic intensity giving way to coke-drip giddiness. It feels real yet over the top, hilarious and horrifying, and it's here that "Foxcatcher" reaches its most sustained and fevered insanity. It is a broader, louder, more mindbending moment than the third-act murder that ostensibly makes this tale worth turning into a movie.

But that's just fine because director Bennett Miller ("Moneyball," "Capote"), who has really made a baffling and dread-filled movie here, does as many things as possible to confound and disassociate and buck the expectations of a based-on-a-true-story, star-packed respectable dramatic Hollywood motion picture. The film is shot in a claustrophobic square-aspect ratio so everyone's on top of each other in the frame, the color palette's pretty much light gray to dark gray, and there's barely any music that tells you how to think about these events. It's a movie that has you feeling like you're about to get the flu.

And then there's the intentionally distracting makeup, none of which is there to add "authenticity" (this is not the lunkheaded literalism of, say, Nicole Kidman's fake Virginia Woolf nose in "The Hours"), but just to keep you even more off-balance: Channing Tatum looks like his mouth is full of Big League Chew the whole time, his jaw clenched and puffed out cartoon-like; Carrell, sporting a fake nose, looks like a half-melted Sam the Eagle from "The Muppets"; and Mark Ruffalo, as Dave Schultz, Mark's more-together older brother who also is a gold-medal-winning wrestler, has a ridiculous receding hairline and ape-like walk. All three kind of look like they've been stung by a whole bunch of bees.

There's a kind of organized surrealism to "Foxcatcher" that's fairly singular. If Adult Swim absurdists Tim and Eric made a "serious" movie it would probably be a lot like "Foxcatcher." Du Pont quickly gains control of Schultz once the down-on-his-luck wrestler moves to du Pont's Foxcatcher Farms to train. Schultz starts doing coke and frosting the tips of his hair and shaving du Pont's face for him and teaching the old man how to wrestle, though their training looks more like a well-planned molestation session for du Pont. Low-key, this film is about PTSD (again, not really about the infamous murder): Schultz spends the final two acts trying to snort, eat, and brood his way out of sexual violence committed upon his person by mentor du Pont. A particularly intense scene shows Mark freaking out in his hotel room after he loses an important match, smacking himself in face, breaking a lamp, and putting his head through a mirror, all of it in one take (Carrell and Ruffalo are excellent here but Tatum's the subtle stand-out that won't get enough credit). Next, a jarring cut finds Mark, post-freakout, chowing down on a titanic order of hotel room-service food.

This is a movie about men and their bodies, and although it's got the hots for Tatum's bulk and Ruffalo's waddling masculinity (just like du Pont), it has no interest in idealizing them, and a scene of a man binging and purging on sweets and comfort food illustrates the quest for perfection and control as an imminently tragic endeavor with no sports-flick sentimentality. And Carrell gives du Pont a childlike cluelessness (it is his signature naive white goofball Michael Scott or "The 40 Year Old Virgin" character minus any winning decent qualities) that masks madness and manipulation. It makes moments that could be funny even funnier and simultaneously scarier, because you're waiting for the punchline that never comes because oh wait, it isn't all that fucking funny that this guy is mentally ill and has loads of money and is friends with the cops and the military-industrial complex and has essentially trapped a bunch of hot young buff Olympic-level dudes on his farm so they can flex for him and he can possibly, probably fuck them. Scenes where du Pont jogs around the rink in little shorts or fires a gun inside the gym or shows up to Dave's house dressed like a Revolutionary War soldier or deadpan tells Mark now that they're friends to stop calling him "Mr. du Pont" but instead "Eagle or Golden Eagle or . . . John" are hilarious and haunting. Carrell keeps du Pont just out of reach.

Separate from the monstrous du Pont, who's to "blame" here is constantly changing. Initially, you're mad at Mark for not being smart enough to second-guess going to live on this loon's farm, then you're disappointed when Dave eventually comes to help build a wrestling team (because the amount of cash du Pont's giving him is undeniable and the Olympics are involved) and sticks around long after he gets Mark out. And du Pont is never really a villain, even though he's a terrible person, because there's a sense that he's completely lost it and so, like so many tragedies, everybody and nobody's to blame, and the murder, which would be the focus of other movies, feels like a fucked-up afterthought and also the only way these events were going to wrap up.

There's a murder in this movie and maybe you know who kills whom because you know about the real-life version of events, but don't try and predict or anticipate it, because it plays out in a purposefully underwhelming way here. It is the most masterfully quotidian murder since Omar's in "The Wire." So you watch "Foxcatcher" feeling sad and fucked up, maybe occasionally chuckling at these goofs who believe in American values, but it's still stomach-turning when you see Mark, as lost as he was at the beginning of the movie, still coping quietly, ruggedly, suddenly aware that all those values were founded on bullshit, themselves espoused by the rich du Pont-like bullies of the past, and this was all doomed the moment he got to Foxcatcher Farms.

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