DIRECTOR: Bennett Miller
CAST: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo
Bennett Miller’s third film based on a true story, after Capote and Moneyball, is his most chilling, particularly in how it slowly builds sense of dread around a serene, isolated estate, a few closeted men, and a little-understood sport celebrating raw, controlled aggression.
That sport is wrestling, and the closeted men include at least two American Olympic champions and brothers Dave (Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (Tatum). However, the man who leaves you unsettled isn’t the guy in the ring but the one hovering just outside it. That’s John du Pont (Carell), the heir to one of America’s richest families whose fortunes were built on its instruments of warfare. Carell sports a pasty complexion and a prosthetic nose, with his eyes buried far, far behind it. However, it’s the even more distant look in them that is frightening.
A social misfit outside of the wrestling ring, particularly under the weight of his Olympic gold medal, Mike though finds John enthralling. When John talks about honouring him, honouring America, and making their country great, particularly against the Russians, it is all very appealing to Mark. When John also offers himself a handsome annual retainership, Mark moves to the luxurious du Pont estate to train with a team he gets to choose.
Mark tries to bring Dave (Ruffalo) along too, but the latter is too comfortable, with his fame, his role as a university coach, and his wife and family, to move.
Tatum, a former stripper, is an actor most comfortable in roles that play on his physicality. And here is a role that requires men to be in contact almost too close for comfort. Tatum acts with his body as the relationship between Mark and John starts out uncertain, grows into friendship, and then enters an uncertain, manipulative zone.
The ever-dependable Ruffalo is as good as ever as the wiser brother, both in laying the line and understanding his limits with respect to John. Ruffalo would normally be considered an odd choice for a wrestler, but the actor who packed a new punch in Hulk, inhabits the gait, the walk, the posture of a wrestler surprisingly well. Tatum and he have a quiet, startlingly observant bout right at the beginning that establishes the relationship between the brothers very well in a world largely comprising monosyllables.
However, it’s Carell who is the real revelation as the lonely, bitter, unattractive, petty heir and son seeking meaning in the one sport that allows him to be as close as he can get to another human being as well as puts him as far as he dare from his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her elegant equestrian sport. He is cold and beseeching, powerful and pitiful, all at the same time in his team jerseys, slight paunch and short shorts, while also evoking an unspoken fear among all his employees.
Miller’s film, which features world-level bouts, is also an interesting look at the high ideals of the Olympics and the low means that sometimes make it possible. Carell calls himself a coach and mentor, without being either, and for $500,000 a year, the US Wrestling Foundation is ready to look the other way.