"Foxcatcher," Bennett Miller's tale of wrestling and murder, premiered Monday night at the Cannes Film Festival to the kind of rapturous response that rarely strikes at this gathering of the discerning and the jaded.
Miller's fact-based story has established itself as an early player in the fall awards season, hoping to follow in the footsteps of 2007's "No Country for Old Men" and 2011's "The Artist," which each turned May buzz into best picture Oscars. Its premiere brought loud applause in the screening rooms of this Riviera town and gushy adjectives in print; writing in Variety, Justin Chang called it a "great, brooding true-crime saga."
But it also faces a number of hurdles, including a studiously quiet tone that could inhibit it with some mainstream audiences and the general backlash that can follow movies with early hype. After all, the Cannes Film Festival tends to showcase several high-profile award titles, but some of those tend to fade as awards season heats up in the fall. as "Nebraska" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" did last year. Early favorite status can sometimes lead to a backlash and fatigue in the long slog of the modern awards campaign
"Foxcatcher," which doesn't open until Nov. 14, chronicles the events preceding the real-life murder by eccentric millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) of wrestling coach Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who was working on Du Pont's Pennsylvania property, and the charged relationship that Du Pont had with Schultz's younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum), also a championship wrestler.
The movie's back story suggests an abundance of award narratives: physical transformations for stars Carell and Tatum, a restrained tone and pacing that critics tend to favor, plenty of rich themes of privilege and morality and, maybe most important, articulate spokesmen in Miller and the cast.
Speaking to reporters after the screening, Ruffalo offered a glimpse at the conversation the movie could offer in a season that thrives on debate — and the publicity that such debate creates.
"What happens when everything is for sale?" he said. "What happens to talent when it's for sale or when it can be acquired?"
Carell's embrace of the real-life Du Point is also the stuff Oscar dreams are made of, as Matthew McConaughey — another actor staking out new career ground — found last season with his award-winning portrayal of Ron Woodroof in "Dallas Buyers Club."
"I did as much research as I could," Carell told reporters, noting books and documentaries he studied. "You get different interpretations of who [Du Pont] might have been, and you have to decide on one or a conglomeration of several."
Citing the bad knees and other ailments that came with the many hours of on-set wrestling, Tatum, hardly a regular on the Oscar circuit himself, said, "This is definitely something that gets into your body and doesn't leave."
Miller also brings an excellent track record to awards season, with his first two films, 2005's "Capote" and 2011's "Moneyball" — both also fact-based dramas — garnering Oscar plaudits.
"Foxcatcher" arrives after an extended editing period in which Miller and Sony executives sought to find the right balance of the characters' stories, forcing it to move out of the 2013 season.
It also will come from Sony Pictures Classics after parent Sony decided it fit better at the specialty label. SPC often lands pictures in categories other than best picture, though it did garner a nomination for Michael Haneke's "Amour" in 2012.
The film has a good omen in financier and producer Megan Ellison, however: Ellison's recent movies, including "Her" last year and "Zero Dark Thirty" the year before, each went on to score best picture nominations and become awards season darlings.