Crazy like a fox

Steve Carell plays real-life madman in 'Foxcatcher'

From the stranger-than-fiction department comes the true-crime story "Foxcatcher," a disturbing meditation on madness enabled by money to run rampant.

Adapted by screenwriters E. Max Frye ("Something Wild") and Dan Futterman for director Bennett Miller (the latter two respectively an Oscar winner and nominee for "Capote"), "Foxcatcher" quietly but firmly interprets the disturbing story of millionaire John du Pont through bifocal lenses of American dreaming and the sexual fantasies made accessible by wealth.

The film's early scenes, set in 1987, establish Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) as a lonely, lost soul with an inferiority complex, feeling always in the shadow of his brother and fellow gold medalist Dave (Mark Ruffalo). When eccentric chemical corporation heir du Pont comes calling on Mark, massaging his ego ("You're more than Dave Schultz's little brother ... it's your time now") and offering monetary and moral support for upcoming World Championship and Olympic bids, Mark gets past his uneasiness. Though failing to convince his brother to do the same, Mark resettles on du Pont's Foxcatcher Farm in Delaware, to train and anchor "Team Foxcatcher."

What then unfolds seems simultaneously inevitable and unpredictable, as du Pont's erratic behavior gradually reveals that he is not so much odd as dangerously unhinged. Du Pont wraps himself in the flag, but his goals are purely self-serving: to win the respect of his decaying, disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and his "stable" of brawny boy toys. The influence of "Mother" and du Pont's ornithological hobby unmistakeably evoke "Psycho" and its similarly sexually ambiguous madman.

Miller is careful to keep the homoeroticism a palpable but implicit threat. While stopping shy of spelling out unambiguous advances or assaults, the director and his actors accumulate details that paint du Pont as a sexual predator who arranges opportunity and takes every advantage he can, and Schultz, eventually, as an emotionally shut-down victim of abuse. (Miller also questionably elides du Pont's ultimate diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.)

As du Pont, Steve Carell employs a fake nose, unsettlingly flat affect, weirdly cadaverous face and druggy demeanor to disappear into his role, one that establishes he's capable of surprising new dimensions. Tatum, too, impresses, leading with his jaw and subtly tracing the emotional journey of sullen hulk Schultz, while Ruffalo matches him with typically keen, truthfully understated work. Along with "Whiplash" (also released by Sony Pictures Classics), "Foxcatcher" tops the year's films for detailed inhabitation of dysfunctional psychological dynamics.

Miller's austere aesthetic, natural-lighting scheme and long takes together build a realistic tension that allows the story to creep up on the audience. And the development of the film's themes -- the corrupting possibilities of money, the value of championship (and the cost of achieving it) and the gulf that can form between "winning" and happiness -- proves both understated and canny. These themes may not be uniquely American, but played out in the shadow of Valley Forge, they certainly seem that way.

Rated R for some drug use and a scene of violence. Two hours, 14 minutes.

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