Steve Carell received his first Oscar nomination for portraying John du Pont in Foxcatcher.
Comedian Steve Carell actually already played against type early on his prominent film career as a suicidal scholar in Little Miss Sunshine. That I suppose was only lightly against type compared to his performance here as John du Pont. Just for starters Carell is made up with a pale look and plenty of prosthetic in his face to change his appearance considerably. It does not stop there though and Carell gives an extremely mannered performance as John. One particularly noticeable thing is in his vocal delivery where....he....puts....a...breath....between....everything...he...says. This is obviously to sound like the real John du Pont's unique way of speaking, but unfortunately it does sound more like a put on by Carell than something natural to his character. One of the reasons being that Carell accentuates it too much where it was something in John du Pont's manner of speaking, but it was not as overpowering as the way Carell handles it. This is unfortunately not the only element of Carell's performance that does feel a bit "performed".
Carell makes a major misstep from the beginning of his performance, just as he is introducing himself to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), which is to play up the creep factor of John du Pont. Carell severely overplays his hand by making du Pont seem quite deranged right from the start. The thing is Carell unfortunately keeps this as a constant not even putting on a front when he's doing something in public or for the promotion of his team Foxcatcher. Carell always keeps that distant stare and off-putting distance in his physical performance. There is never a time where one would not suspect there is something very wrong with John du Pont. I should say I felt this way well watching the film for the first time before I saw any footage of the real John du Pont. After seeing the real footage, Carell's method is even more questionable. There is something off about the real du Pont but it's a subtle quality and for the most part he still seems like you could relax around him. With Carell's du Pont it's questionable that anyone would be comfortable being around the man even if they were getting paid, because it seems like he's already a serial killer.
Steve Carell's performance unfortunately makes it so he really has nowhere to go in terms of making John an increasingly problematic and dangerous man. Carell from the start seems like John is ready to kill something to begin with so there's a distinct lack of build up from him in the third act. The only thing that conveys this really is through the script which gives him less lines as the film progresses making a strong disconnection from the man. It likely would have been far more effective if Carell had gradually shown an increasing decay of John's mental state, but Carell starts as though he is already insane. Even past that though Carell's whole portrayal of the mannerisms does never feel wholly genuine, and seems to much like Carell trying to make John this constantly threatening presence. Frankly the whole physical portrayal Carell gives actually seems more fitting for a straight thriller than what Foxcatcher is. The worst thing about this is that this hangs over the entirety of his performance making it that even in certain scenes that try to focus on a different side of du Pont, the mannerisms still makes Carell's performance a bit off.
Carell therefore must try to convey some other ideas about John du Pont while being very much handicapped by his mannerisms. That is not to say there are not some interesting elements in this performance, but they are harder to see than they should be. Carell does manage to create a somewhat intriguing relationship between John and Mark. At times he gives the gaze of almost a fan boy as he watches an Olympic hero he would probably would like to be. At other times Carell simply plays him as a manipulator, basically fulfilling his role as millionaire, as he constantly instructs Mark, and will suddenly take an exception with him without warning. There are moments though where Carell suggests a little warmth in his performance as John seems to be trying to reach out to Mark merely as a friend. Carell is good in these moments as they are kinda heartbreaking as they seem so halfhearted yet earnest at the same time. He is particularly effective in the scene where John sadly tells Mark about his only friend, as he has such a defeated resignation in his speech, who turns out was merely being paid by his mother to be his friend. These random sides of John shown actually work in alluding to the sort of broken man John is.
What obviously contributes all the more to John's problems is his relationship with his very distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Carell again does rather well in the one scene where they speak to one another, where John's mother states her disapproval for wrestling, as there is such a palatable disconnect clearly between mother and son which contrasts especially against the close connection Mark shares with his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Carell has one scene where he is close to being outstanding, he would be if he did not have to keep up that wrong approach to John du Pont, where John is doing a training session with his team as his mother comes in to view what he is doing. Carell's conveys John being devastated quietly internally as he has to watch his mother's disapproving eyes once more, and manages to be rather moving by honestly expressing that all John wants is to be loved by his mother. In doing Carell even does well to suggest what causes him to begin to see Dave as an enemy, and again is effective in portraying the anguish as he sees basically what he desires is right in front of him between Dave and Mark.
Carell's performance here I feel has the potential for greatness as there are several moments where he does create a compelling portrait of John du Pont's mental state. Unfortunately Carell undercuts everything with his obvious sociopath routine that always feels very much acted every second he does it. Carell does not take the wrong approach in portraying John's relationship with the brothers and his mother, but there's always simply the fact that why is he standing like rigid board all the time. It would have been interesting if Carell instead started with hints of John's mental problems and slowly built them to the pivotal moment, which likely would have been more effective, and apparently truer to the real life story. A mannered performance like this easily can work, his co-star Ruffalo technically is equally mannered but Ruffalo's performance not only feels far more natural it also makes more sense for his character, but what Carell does here is weigh down everything else he even tries. I hate to try to wave away this performance because it's not a complete failure, Carell's approach is daring in many ways, but it's just not quite the right approach.