A finely acted and yet supremely depressing true story about Olympic wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and their coach Jean du Pont (Steve Carell), who describes himself as one of the richest men in America at the time and who takes on Mark as a way to engage with the sport that he loves but which he has never competed in himself, we are led to conclude that this is largely because his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) very much looks down on the activity as a ‘lowly’ sport. He’s not much of a coach, his body and mannerisms are more like Monty Burns from the Simpsons than anything resembling an athlete or a figure of authority and respect, and the story focuses on the psychological effects of a lifetime spent futilely trying to please an aloof parent, a situation complicated by wealth and indulgent privilege, as well as Mark’s situation growing up and competing in the shadow of his, loving, brother David.
The first thing you notice about the film is the altered physical aspect that all three central performers have sewn into their portrayals – in fact, the three all hunch to some extent, two of them from muscular strengthening and combat, the other via atrophy, but their look and style are all very well nuanced and delivered. Indeed, for Carell this is not only a rare non-comedic role but an extremely transformative one with prosthetics and a deserved Oscar nod for his lonely and fractious study of du Pont – with Ruffalo getting an equally merited supporting nomination although Tatum is every bit their equal. Set in the eighties and directed by Bennett Miller (‘Capote’ 05, ‘Moneyball’ 11), a slightly grainy texture has been applied to the film, which I think is to the movie’s detraction – it is already somewhat dark and miserable without a further visible layer being applied, but it remains a taught and very believable exploration of the themes and characters, and the real story both intrigues and saddens throughout.