You may have heard that Steve Carell appears as you've never seen him before in the new movie Foxcatcher. And he does, quite literally — the man's almost unrecognizable in the prothetic nose he wears for the role of ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist, uninformed wrestling coach, and convicted murderer John du Pont. As a well-established comedic actor, Carell is also playing aggressively against type: Du Pont is scary as well as ridiculous — a bundle of awkwardness, mommy issues, and mental illness who's been swaddled in boundless privilege all his life. He can be funny, but never intentionally so ("And my friends call me Eagle...or Golden Eagle," he says with an absolute lack of awareness).
It's no surprise then that Carell's performance is attracting all the awards attention — it's the kind of impressive departure and physical transformation that the Academy loves (the fake schnoz alone has become a kind of signal of actorly seriousness). And despite not showing up until 20 minutes into the film, Carell's being submitted for awards consideration as one of its leads, alongside Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz.
But Foxcatcher is really Mark's story — he's the muscled ingenue to Carell's multimillionaire monster, the one who gets scooped up from poverty and a place perpetually in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and transported to the lush grounds of the du Pont estate to do what he loves: wrestle. He's the one who has to navigate a confusing, boundary-crossing relationship with his increasingly unstable benefactor. He's the one who decides he has to leave, even as his sibling attempts to make a life at Foxcatcher Farm, and pays a terrible price for it. Carell may have the showier role, but it's Tatum who's the underappreciated heart of the movie, doing his finest work to date. His brooding turn as Mark is as emotionally eloquent as the character is inarticulate.
Not to reduce anyone to being a piece of meat, but Tatum has always been an actor with some slab-of-beef qualities, whether gyrating his way through Magic Mike or playing a lovable lunkhead in the 21 Jump Street movies. He's particularly adept with characters who aren't necessarily dumb, but who are more comfortable with their bodies than brains. Mark, the most hulkish of them all, is the tragic extension of that trend, a man who's devoted his life to a sport that generates little national attention outside of the Olympic spotlight, and who works at it tirelessly but with little apparent joy. He's a physical creature, but there's no ease to how he carries himself — stiffly, with a simian swing to his stride, jaw jutting, shoulders eternally tight. "You ungrateful ape," John calls him in a moment of anger.
And Mark treats himself like a piece of meat. Early in the film, we see him examining a bruise on his cheekbone, which he then prods with his fingers, hard, like he wants it to further bloom across his face. He eats with the dutiful expressionlessness of an animal at the trough, crouched over some instant ramen, spoon to mouth, spoon to mouth.
On the other hard, his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), is warm and charismatic. He's good with people, and good at both separating out his family life from the sport and planning a future for himself by segueing into coaching.
But Mark has nothing else. He's alone. He's good at being dedicated to his work and at taking pain. The movie's most disturbing act of violence actually has nothing to do with the murder at its climax — it's when Mark, furious at himself for losing a match, punches himself in the face and then smashes his forehead repeatedly into a mirror. Tatum actually put his head through the wall when filming — the cut on his forehead was real, giving the scene an added jolt of method energy. The moment is shocking because Mark is roiling emotion under an impassive exterior, and Tatum makes it clear that an explosion like this is the only way Mark knows how to let his frustration out.
In Foxcatcher, du Pont's chilly mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) raises horses, and the unspoken joke is that he has chosen for his own rival hobby to collect people instead, buying himself a team of Olympic wrestling hopefuls who turn out to be far less tractable than thoroughbreds. But Mark is portrayed, at times, like some kind of high-strung competition animal: He turns over his limbs to his brother to be rubbed down before training, and Dave corrals and grips him at the neck, understanding how the sibling he helped raise needs to be gentled. Tatum portrays Mark as someone who, like a lot of athletes, is accustomed to other people prodding and poking at his body — and for a while, he allows du Pont that freedom, though his increasing discomfort with it shows as he and his would-be father figure sour on one another.
Beyond the physicality of the role, though, what's remarkable about Tatum's performance is all the telegraphed yearning for someone to appreciate Mark, to see him and to choose him. Wrestling is portrayed as distinctly unpretty in Foxcatcher, a "low sport," as Jean puts it, all grimacing and grappling and guys rolling around on the ground together in what du Pont, at least, seems to see as a sublimated expression of his own tamped down sexuality. But it also looks like a competitive substitute for a more platonic sort of embrace — a violent version of a hug. Tatum's face as Dave pins him during practice displays a kind of tender anguish, a complicated mix of emotions at being beaten and being held. Tatum may be an imposingly burly-looking figure in Foxcatcher, but it's the flashes of transparent vulnerability he lets through that remind us, heartbreakingly, that he's the innocent, making a deal without understanding how much the larger game is rigged.