The Crucial Celebrity of Channing Tatum’s Body in ‘Foxcatcher’

The transformation! The transformative nose! Everybody is talking about Steve Carell’s Foxcatcher nose! I talked about Steve Carell’s Foxcatcher nose! Because when a celebrity wears a prosthetic nose, it gets talked about! But a nose is, ultimately, just a nose. There’s a whole body in this film that we should be talking about (and beware, in our discussion of that body, there will be many spoilers).

While Foxcatcher has been inevitably touted as the blossoming of Carell’s “serious” acting career — and indeed, he’s here rendered brilliantly unrecognizable, and rises, as an actor, beyond the heights of his strange mask — Channing Tatum’s “look” is being discussed less, but deserves just as much attention. His exquisite performance is augmented by the sexualized history of his own physique. In fact, his recognizability, and the tabloid-baiting things his body connotes, provide an extra layer of foreshadowing as to the dark places the film is going. His body, it seems, becomes a synecdoche for the narrative, and for the envenomed political allegory underlying the whole film.

Around the release of Foxcatcher, there’s an incredulous buzzing of “Huh, Tatum really can act.” As in, “Huh, Tatum isn’t just an action-movie meat-pile,” but a person who does that… emotion thing?! And portrays… inner demons?! Tatum has become known as the stuff of fantasies — with unparalleled musculature and attractively dumb (and dumbly attractive) features, his brand (aka body) is one that we’ve come to equate with anti-intellectualism. You want to stop thinking for a while? Watch a movie where Channing Tatum’s body performs all sorts of tasks!

Tatum’s Foxcatcher character — based on real-life Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz — is generally soft-spoken and affable: what he expresses through words is actually pretty dull. For he’s been taught, from a young age, by his older brother, that his body is what people want from him. That perfecting it should be his focus. That it is his power. Hell, he won an Olympic Gold Medal. Champion athletes become comically literal representations of a nation’s strength, so, at least for a few moments in the spotlight, his herculean form was America.

Similar to the corporeally influenced casting choice in Foxcatcher, Tatum was cast in Magic Mike because of his past as a stripper (in fact, the movie was based on his particular experiences in the field). The film thoroughly embedded this into Tatum’s narrative as a celebrity, making him “the actor who was formerly a male stripper, who has a sense of humor about it, and who can still, on occasion, reprise his titillating moves.” Now, when Tatum appears onscreen, it always seems there’s a potential for gyration, ass-less chaps, and, oh look, wrestling with Mark Ruffalo.

As if wrestling weren’t homoerotic enough, the second we see Tatum engaged in any form of wrestling in Foxcatcher, an internal struggle is catalyzed, where we have to remind ourselves to be “adult.” But this struggle seems very much desired by director Bennett Miller, who, it appears, chose Tatum in part because, by choreographing him in bodily displays of brotherhood, power-struggle, mentorship and sportsmanship, he’s also conflating all of these with our notion of Tatum as an objectified sexual entity.

This carries uncomfortably over to his first encounter with his brother Dave (Ruffalo), where, before we’re aware that they’re beginning to wrestle, the two almost look like they’re beginning to clumsily slow-dance. Their physical affection is brutish, unpredictable — will they embrace? Will they fight? When your body is your moneymaker — when you’ve morphed it to such an extreme that it’ll earn you Olympic gold — how do you use it to do everyday tasks, to express everyday affection? You might feel a bit pervy for initially seeing sexuality here, but I wouldn’t say it’s illusory. Steve Carell’s character doesn’t only become jealous of Mark’s brother because of their emotional closeness: he gets jealous of Dave’s care and partial possession of Mark’s body.

While it may not be as blatant as, say, Nightcrawler — another searing satire of the American dream — Foxcatcher isn’t too bashful about its politically allegorical structuring of a true story. Carell and Tatum’s bodies work in tandem to actualize the allegory. Carell’s John du Pont, representative of the America’s stagnated wealth, is meek. The actor’s compactness is overemphasized, his body made flabby, his legs hairless: he looks a sickly thing, a result of a life of shelter and a heredity of possible in-breeding.

Raised by his brother Dave and never traditionally educated, Mark Schultz represents a working-class ideal. His body is the result of toil and movement. John du Pont, who quite obviously has never lived the life he wanted due to his overbearing mother and overbearing privilege, wants to own, in every sense of the term, Schultz’s body. The florid decor of the house he’s been stuck in his whole life — contrasted with the streamlined masculinity of the onsite wrestling training center he’s created — suggests the desperate desire of what he wants to be physically, and what he wants to be sexually, over what he actually is physically and sexually. And since he cannot literally hollow out Schultz and overtake his body, he can at least, depending on how you interpret an intentionally ambiguous scene, penetrate it. It seems he can fuck him and train him and then to present him to America.

Du Pont’s mother collects horses. She was formerly a competitive horseback rider. In one scene, after du Pont (who disdains his mother’s choice of sport) assembles a prospective wrestling team at the Foxcatcher ranch, he begins replacing her shelf of horse trophies with wrestling trophies, suggesting his ideal of these men as something bestial. Then, what’s worse, when we’re informed that he used to play with toy trains, and when his mother asks if she can give his train set away, he replies, “I don’t care about the train set. I am leading men.” Of course we doubt whether he really sees the difference. That’s the crux, really: this is this small, inert man’s form of “philanthropy,” this indoctrination and destruction of the working class. This game, the film asserts, is the kind of absurd excuse for “charity” right wing America would love to substitute for government aid.

Mark finally becomes fed up with the smothering exploitation he’s operating under, and abandons his “friendship” with du Pont. Tatum’s depiction of the emotional scarring du Pont has inflicted is also physical: he punches his own face repeatedly. He breaks a mirror with his head. His body’s expression of a propensity toward self harm — while his body also continues to express its own idealized beauty — is harrowing. Tatum’s body pretty much exhibits, in one scene, a summary of the uncanniness of having a body. Of the idea of the ownership of one’s body. Of the wounds made when someone else tries to claim ownership, and of the mind-body dissonance that violation creates. Of the body’s general complexity, and of the not-at-all complex gestures that could break the whole machine.

Mark continues training on Foxcatcher ranch, but only communicating with his brother; du Pont gets hideously jealous. When Dave pep-talks Mark into undergoing a bodily transformation so incomprehensibly extreme — of losing 12 pounds in 90 minutes — du Pont envies Mark’s submission to his brother’s somewhat sadistic love, for it represents Mark’s ultimate denial of du Pont’s sadistic lust. When du Pont later shoots Dave three times (twice in the back as he’s crawling away), the scene elicits a near-physical pain in the viewer. One, two, three — with each systematic shot, his body becomes less and less of a functional entity, until it also turns off his mind. The sensory quality of the scene wouldn’t have been so strong if it hadn’t been for Tatum’s revelatory near-non-verbality, of his way, over the course of the film, of reminding us of all the things a body can do and all of the things a body can mean. It wouldn’t have been this way, either, if his career weren’t so defined by the media and the public’s contemplation and lust over his body.