PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS derive tension from their characters' emotional states—from the intrigue of figuring out the subterranean motivations that drive behavior, decision-making, and relationships. Foxcatcher is more of a physical thriller: The key interpersonal dynamics unfold in the mute interplay of male bodies rolling around on a wrestling mat. (Not in a sexy way.) (A little bit in a sexy way.)
Foxcatcher tells a high-intrigue crime story, based on a 1996 murder. (If you aren't familiar with the crime itself, I won't spoil it—in the movie's atmosphere of flat menace, it comes as a shock.) In adapting the story to the screen, however, director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) seems so determined to avoid salaciousness that he errs too far in the other direction. Miller's reserve is both commendable and frustrating, and the result is a chilly, distant film that observes its characters without explaining them.
Foxcatcher opens with wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) woodenly delivering a motivational speech at a grade school. Mark and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) are Olympic gold medalists, and this is their reward: low-level speaking engagements, and practice sessions in shabby gyms. After collecting his $20 speaker's fee, Mark returns to his lonely apartment and shovels ramen into his mouth, fueling himself like a machine. Like a machine, he's idling, waiting for his next match, his next round of Olympic trials. We don't pity Mark, because he doesn't seem to pity himself—but we don't understand his ambitions, either, because they're so singular and so internal. He seems to be trudging mindlessly toward his goals, with no sense of whether or not achieving those goals might actually make him happy.
Enter gazillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell with a weird prosthetic nose). Du Pont, a professional hobbyist with an interest in ornithology and stamps, has a new preoccupation: The desire to bring a winning wrestling team to the Olympics. He invites Mark to live on his estate and train in his top-notch gym, and soon brings on Dave to coach the team he's creating.
Physically, this is the part Channing Tatum was born to play. Massive, dull-faced, surly—if he hadn't already demonstrated a capacity for charm, you'd be forgiven for thinking he'd been cast as a lug because he is a lug. But in light of his turns in Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street, a different conclusion must be drawn: Chatum is actually a really great actor. In striking contrast to Tatum's sullen reserve, laser beams of empathy shoot out of Mark Ruffalo's eyes in every scene; whether by talent or design, he's the only character who plausibly possesses an inner life. Ruffalo's character serves as an audience proxy, observing the odd relationship between his brother and du Pont—du Pont is somewhere between friend, father figure, and creepy uncle.
We never really find out what's going on between these two, because Foxcatcher is nearly silent on the subject of its characters' inner lives. The script gives us few hints as to why Mark wants to be an Olympian, and few plausible clues as to what, exactly, has happened to make du Pont such a next-level weirdo. (It definitely has something to do with his mother.) These characters are inscrutable to themselves, each other, and the audience, and while there's something commendable about Foxcatcher's unwillingness to pander to armchair psychologists—or to imply that it's possible to really know why these events unfolded the way that they did—it makes for frustrating watching. But it's a movie about wrestlers—world-class wrestlers—and there are unspoken volumes in the casual, violent intimacy of men grappling on a mat.