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Released 9 January 2014
Director Bennett Miller

Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller
Writer(s) E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

Anthony Bregman, Megan Ellison, Jon Kilik, Bennett Miller
Origin United States
Running Time 134 minutes
Genre Biography, drama, sport
Rating 15A

Nothing in this life comes for free.

Mark Schultz was a champion sportsman – Olympic winner, world champion and known to the world, along with his older brother David, as one of the highest achieving brother-teams in the world of wrestling. If you don’t know the story of Mark and his brother David, do yourself a favour and don’t look it up. Watch this stunning film from director Bennett Miller first, and afterwards, I guarantee- you’ll be googling everything you can on the subject. If you do know the story, then watch it to see this mesmerizing account of a story filled with ambition, love, sadness and the complexities of disturbed minds.

Miller, who gave us Capote; a powerful, character-driven drama set against the bleak and unadorned landscape of ordinary America, has again produced an exceptionally stirring portrait of extraordinary events emerging from ordinary and mundane settings. Painting the backdrop with muted tones and overcast skies, and gently filling the silences with a soundtrack of sinister minor descents from composer Rob Simonsen, there’s an ever-rising sense of dread as the characters head ever deeper into damaging relationships and personal crisis. The writers here, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, also lend a masterful turn at storytelling to the film; they let the story speak for itself and have conviction in the characters, for often it’s the silences and physical performances, more than the dialogue itself, that quietly hint at deep nuances in the personalities playing together here.

Indeed it is the performances of the three main actors, and the complex characters they portray, that really lift this piece into Oscar-worthy territory. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo excel as the Schultz brothers, in everything from their physicality to their complicated relationship; often tender, sometimes violent and envious, but always instinctively loving and inclusive. The two actors trained for months in wrestling in advance of this film to give realistic depictions of signature moves, and by itself this is something the film is worth watching for. The close up shots and sports-documentary style look at high-level competitive sport is enthralling in itself; from the physical actions involved in sparring, the grueling weigh-in process, or even the flipside of being an Olympic and world champion who goes home at the end of the day to an empty house to eat pot ramen and play his Gameboy. These elements invite us in deeper into the difficult world inhabited by the brothers, and in particular, by the younger and less well known brother, Mark Schultz.

We meet the brothers following the glory of their Olympic success, but after the dust settles on their gold medals, its back to the lonely and difficult life of a professional athlete – in between training, Mark gives talks for twenty dollars in schools, dealing with secretaries who mistake him for his more popular brother. It’s a scant life of trying to make ends meet while training to represent your country. Mark and Dave have the hunched, muscle-bound walk of wrestlers, and the paradoxical brutish tenderness of training partners and brothers, with Dave being the protector, carer and mentor of his younger and seemingly troubled brother. It is during this period that Mark receives a mysterious call from John du Pont; a chemical fortune millionaire who wants to use his wealth towards supporting athletes in a sport he loves, and in doing so, “achieve greatness for America”. With Dave bound to his family life, it is down to Mark to breakaway on his own, and he moves to the du Pont family estate in Pennsylvania, to train in comfort and with the financial support of a much needed beneficiary. The question posed by David when he first hears of this offer though, is one which haunts the proceeding events; “What does he get out of it?”

Steve Carell delivers the performance of his career as the awkward aristocrat, wanting to belong and adopting Mark as “his son”, looking for acceptance by his elderly disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave), and displaying increasing levels of bitterness when he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s in some ways a lesson against the perils of wealth; the untold loneliness of the vast estate filled with nothing but racehorses and servants, speaks volumes as du Pont’s social awkwardness becomes more evident. Carell, the 40-year old virgin, morphs on screen- both literally and metaphorically - into some kind of monster. Almost unrecognisably his on-screen presence sent shivers down my spine; through his raspy tones and upturned chin, his pale freckled skin and prosthetic nose, and his flashes of discontent when something doesn’t work the way he would like.

While Carell may end up receiving the most attention for his role in this film as he reveals a new and accomplished string to his bow, with an on-screen presence that is repulsive and magnetic in equal measure, it would be doing Ruffalo and Tatum a disservice to not recognise their contribution here too. Tatum delivers a powerful emotional performance that hints at a troubled mind, unable to reconcile his demons, whatever they may be, despite the loving support of his brother or his sporting success. Dave Schultz in the hands of Ruffalo is gregarious, and invites sympathy and support from the audience as he strives to do right by all who depend on him. The delicate hands thrown over all these elements slowly and quietly weave together a story that is engrossing and tragic. Truly a masterclass in filmmaking.

- Eadaoin Browne