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As serious and stone-faced as garden statuary, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (2014) is a bit of a conundrum: on the one hand, the overly stately film has a portentous, heavy atmosphere that practically demands we pay attention, drenching everything in the sort of numbing foreboding that all but guarantees a tragic resolution. On the other hand, Miller’s follow-up to his smash-hit Moneyball (2011) is so grim and po-faced that it often approaches the level of self-parody: it’s like spending an afternoon with your glowering, disapproving, elderly aunt as she constantly swats your hand for trying to sneak extra Lorna Doones. When the film’s serious-mindedness and its themes collide, there’s some genuinely affecting drama to be found here. Much of the time, however, Foxcatcher is…well, it’s a bit of a slog, to be honest.

Falling under the “they can’t make this stuff up” designation, Foxcatcher is based on the true story of eccentric millionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) and his tragic relationship with Olympic gold medal-winning wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). John, the mentally unhinged heir to the massive du Pont plastics fortune, was constantly trying to break away from the disapproving eye of his aging mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), who valued her prized “horse flesh” over her son’s “silly” wrestling fixation.

John sought validation by pinning his support on Mark, the sullen half of the legendary Schultz brothers. By serving as the father figure that Mark so desperately needs, du Pont uses the wrestler’s natural skill and need for validation to make his own mark in the sport. More than anything, however, du Pont sees a kindred spirit with Mark’s own desire to break away from the over-bearing shadow of his super-successful older brother. John exploits the inherently rocky nature of Mark and David’s relationship, using Mark’s jealousy and David’s need for superiority to put new prizes into his trophy room.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that du Pont is a loon. Prone to firing guns off for no reason, given to staring weirdly into space and so cold and distant as to appear almost alien, John is the absolute worst role model/father figure a person could possibly have. His increasingly erratic behavior and cocaine use (a habit that he, helpfully, introduces to the naive Mark) kick off a cycle of chaos that leads to tragedy, violence and, finally, redemption.

The big selling point to Miller’s multi-award-nominated Foxcatcher is, undoubtedly, Carell’s ultra-serious performance as the demented wrestling enthusiast. Best known for his portrayal of Michael Scott, the fumbling manager for the mythical Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Carell has mostly stuck to comedy roles across his two+decades in the biz, although he’s snuck out for the occasional “dramedy” role, ala Little Miss Sunshine (2006) or Dan in Real Life (2007).

Here, we get nothing but the serious, stone-faced side of Carell (along with some seriously heavy-handed facial makeup) and it’s kind of a mixed bag. For the most part, Carell is fairly inert here, his silent, brooding watchfulness often blending into the background as if he were a stage prop. We do get scattered moments of pure Michael Scott-ism, such as the oddly humorous bit where du Pont encourages Mark to call him “Eagle, Golden Eagle, John or Coach” but it’s a largely flat-lined performance that seemed to garner an Oscar nomination on pure novelty factor, alone.

Much better is Tatum’s portrayal of du Pont’s brooding, unhappy protegé. Tatum has always struck me as a bit of a puppy dog on-screen, so naturally friendly and non-threatening as to be almost a cartoon character. Here, we get a completely different side of the matinée idol and it’s a pretty good look for the guy. There’s some genuine nuance to his portrayal of Mark, including a dressing room trashing scene that almost rivals Michael Keaton’s similar bit in Birdman (2014), and it really opens up new avenues for Tatum. I’m genuinely surprised that he wasn’t nominated for his performance but I’m willing to wager that he’ll get plenty of additional opportunities in the future. Let’s start to get this guy some more serious roles, Hollywood!

Falling between these two poles is Mark Ruffalo’s take on Dave Schultz. Neither as inert as Carell nor as dynamic as Tatum, Ruffalo strikes me as thoroughly reliable here, if completely unremarkable. This was another case where I have to wonder, at least a little, at the resulting awards nominations: while he was consistently solid, nothing about the performance stuck out, for me.

From a filmmaking perspective, Foxcatcher is almost relentlessly austere and serious-minded. This is the kind of movie where the very notion of “cracking a smile” is unthinkable: time after time, we’re reminded of just how grim everything really is, often to the point of near parody. The film has a pleasantly gritty, grainy look, which definitely works in its favor, but everything else about it practically screams “serious film” and it kind of sinks under its own weight. I’m not insinuating that the film needs a humorous edge, mind you: I am, however, stating that it takes itself far too seriously to be effective. There’s an inherently ludicrous element to the proceedings that the film never really exploits, giving everything the air of a particularly ponderous PBS film when it could’ve been a much more dynamic affair.

Ultimately, Foxcatcher was well-made but left me cold. I appreciate what Miller and company were going for but the film never seemed to cohere into anything more than a mildly thought-provoking take on obsession. There were plenty of hints at larger themes, especially relating to patriotism, but they never seemed to develop into anything more than footnotes. As such, Foxcatcher felt much “smaller” and slighter than was probably intended, especially considering how self-important the film feels. Inherently sad, introspective and muted, Foxcatcher is a decent-enough drama but nothing more. While it may be note-worthy as Steve Carell’s first truly “serious” role, I’m willing to wager that Channing Tatum’s performance will be the one that people still talk about, years from now.

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