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If all of Cannes isn't it love with Channing Tatum right now, it should be. During the photo-call for Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher on Monday afternoon Tatum -- relaxed, affable, light on his feet despite being seriously built -- turned toward the press and took a few photographs of the corps with his own camera. He's not the first celebrity to do this, but I doubt anyone else has done it with so much kicked-back charm. His body language, forced into the inadequacy of actual words, would be: "I'm in Cannes, and it's awesome!" You can tell just by looking that Tatum doesn't have the soul of an ingrate. After the press conference, he took his time strolling past another set of photographers, giving everyone a chance at a good shot, and even stopped so a fan could crane in close enough to take a selfie.
For the first time in my life, I felt a pang of selfie jealousy.
Even if Steve Carell's performance in Foxcatcher -- a terrific one -- ends up being the most lauded in the film, what Tatum does is more complicated, and more wondrous. Carell plays John Du Pont, the eccentric heir, ornithologist, and wrestling enthusiast who, in the 1980s, turned part of his lavish Delaware County, Pa., estate into a training facility for young athletes, crowning himself "coach" of a team he hoped would become Olympic champs. Tatum plays Mark Schultz, the Olympic gold-winning wrestler who, for a time, nestled under Du Pont's wing: The socially awkward but seemingly harmless benefactor set himself up as a father figure to Mark, eventually persuading Mark's brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic gold winner, to coach the team.
Du Pont shot Dave Schultz dead in 1996, and was convicted of third degree murder in 1997. He died in prison in 2010. Miller's movie attempts to explore, rather than explain, the events leading up to this bizarre murder -- his actors aren't so much giving performances as giving shape and life to human behavior, with all its shadows, kinks, and unspoken insecurities. Miller doesn't, thank God, go for the easy explanation that Du Pont was romantically and/or sexually obsessed with either brother, though some sort of love or dependency was surely involved. When Du Pont first offers Mark the allegedly golden opportunity of training at the estate, known as Foxcatcher, the young athlete can't believe his luck, though even then Channing shows flickers of muted cautiousness. Dave, who's busy building his own life with his family -- his wife is played, in a few brief but potent scenes, by Sienna Miller -- at first declines to accompany Mark to Foxcatcher, but is won over when the zillionaire puts enough dollars on the table.
Foxcatcher is a meticulously constructed film that never pretends to have all the answers. Miller seems most interested in showcasing his three lead actors, and they repay the favor -- this is a trifecta of terrific performances. Though Du Pont is distinctly different from any other character Carell has played, you can still see threads of the shy lone wolf he created in The 40-Year-Old Virgin: His words trickle out in awkward intonations -- he seems like the sort of loner you could easily feel sorry for, an everyman eccentric. But when he senses that Mark is pulling away from his tentacle grip, he lashes out with startling cruelty. The opacity of Du Pont's behavior is terrifying, but Carell doesn't just play him as your stock possible-psychopath: He gives the character's blankness shape and dimension -- he's a deadpan menace.
Ruffalo's Dave is the most stable, grounded point of this wobbly triangle: Dave picks up on Du Pont's disquieting intensity even before his brother does, and Ruffalo brings so much gravity to the role that we feel protected by him too -- it's as if nothing can go wrong when he's around. (Bearded and with an artificially receding hairline, he's also a dead ringer for the '70s-era Brian De Palma -- what a role that would be.)
But of the three performances, Tatum's is the most fine-grained. If the real test of an actor is what he does with a mediocre role as opposed to a great one, Tatum passed long ago, in movies like the 2010 Nicholas Sparks adaptation Dear John and 2011's The Son of No One. He was the best thing about both of those pictures, though for a time after he made his big splash in the 2006 urban dance drama Step Up, no one knew quite what to do with him: He kept getting cast as earnest soldiers and stolid cops, roles that suited him but also limited him. Still, he was quietly believable every time, the kind of actor who absorbs stray bits of energy around him and reflects them back as molecules of light. I once wrote that while I thought he was a wonderful actor, I didn't think he'd become a big star because his gifts were too subtle to translate into that kind of recognition. I'm thrilled that I've been proven wrong.
How, exactly, do you play an athlete who shuts down emotionally, as Mark does when Du Pont's controlling monomania becomes too much to bear? An athlete may hide his feelings, but his body -- so disciplined in a language all its own -- is constantly in the way, inadvertently betraying secrets. Tatum pulls off the tricky feat of shading his character's emotions without shutting down so much that the camera can't pick them up. And his body, even with its firm arcs of muscle, is as graceful as a Brancusi poised to take flight; it tells us all the things Mark is afraid to say with his eyes. Tatum's performance is a marvel of physicality, and surely one of the best we'll see all year. A wrestler on the outside and a dancer within, he uses every muscle he's got.
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