Most movies follow a conventional three act structure. They start with introductions to characters and exposition, build to a climax and resolve this climax as the movie comes to a close. In Foxcatcher, Bennet Miller’s fantastic new film about Olympic wrestlers, all we really get is build.

The film follows Mark and Dave Schultz, two brothers who have won gold medals in separate Olympic Games for heavyweight wrestling. Mark, played by Channing Tatum, is the younger brother and also the more reclusive of the two. His older brother Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo, is much more amiable and open, and easily becomes the most likeable character in the film. John Du Pont, a wealthy and antisocial billionaire played by Steve Carell, enters the picture offering to pay Mark for his efforts, in order to ensure his victory in the upcoming 1988 Olympics.

Based on actual events, this story very quickly becomes an intense character study of these three men. Mark, who is undoubtedly the lead, is terrified of living in his brother’s shadow, and is dead-set on winning as a result.

As Tatum plays him, Mark is incredibly surly, but also intensely vulnerable, and he finds a role model and pseudo- father figure in Du Pont, who shares many of his more reclusive tendencies. Tatum brings an intense physicality to his work here that makes him seem like the man himself, and it is surely the best and strangest performance of the actor’s career.

As Du Pont, Steve Carell proves to be just as unexpectedly perfect for his role as Tatum was for his, giving a haunting and vivid performance of a man haunted by loneliness and the cruelty of his mother, with whom he has spent most of his life. Du Pont is fragile, insecure and desires his mother’s approval above all else. He is also unstable, and Carell manages to portray all of this perfectly. His performance is mannered but subtle, and it gives us a look at what Carell is truly capable of.

Though both of these performances are layered and complex, it is ultimately Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Dave that gives the film anything resembling a heart. Without him, the film becomes utterly cold and dark, and would likely be unwatchable. Ruffalo, though, is a character who is both caring and relatively normal, with his priorities in order and without sick obsession. It’s understandable why Tatum’s Mark would be so terrified of living in his shadow.

Bennett Miller, who has previously directed films such as Capote and Moneyball, gives his signature cold and calculated look to this piece.

It is to his credit that this over two-hour hour film is often quite silent, allowing the physicality of the actors and the picturesque sceneryto come to the fore. His somewhat distant style fits the film wonderfully, and allows for a feeling of incredible momentum right up to the film’s shocking conclusion.

This finale, as heartbreaking as it is shocking, is one which ultimately forces the viewer to consider not only his expectations of what would occur, but the ways in which the forces at work in our society may be ones which ultimately hurt us. The obsessions in this film, with winning, glory or even just approval, create an atmosphere so toxic that it becomes almost impossible to stand. It’s an atmosphere that, in all truth, is far too familiar to many. It’s one of terrifying ambition, where people will step on each other just to prove that they are better, or even just that they are worth something at all. In truth, this ideal is an American one.

We are asked to be our best selves, to compete against one another every day, hoping to find that we are the king of the hill. What we don’t see is the dark underbelly. Foxcatcher should give you a visceral sense of terror. It makes you wonder what it is we’re so desperately craving, and what we might do to get it.

Allen is a member of

the class of 2017.

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