The awards season is now upon us, and yet here at the end of November, there are few films that look like sure bets. To be sure, David Fincher's Gone Girl is generally admired (if hardly adored) and racked up box-office receipts, and Richard Linklater's Boyhood has been near-universally praised by critics, even if its lack of stars and long running time have prevented it from being a mainstream hit. But as those caveats point out, potential nominees have had a tough time staking their claim to frontrunner status.
Be it Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, the theater satire Birdman, or the WWII code-breaking thriller The Imitation Game, this fall's crop of award-courting releases has been met with decidedly mixed reviews and audience reactions. It's a field of good-but-flawed prestige pictures to go alongside smaller underdog indies (Whiplash, Under the Skin) that seem too niche or divisive to mount a run at the industry's top prizes.
That leaves one film with what seems like a clear shot at Oscar gold: Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, the based-on-real-events tale of reclusive millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) and his increasingly strange and ultimately fatal relationship (and mentorship) with Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz.
Not only is Foxcatcher arguably the most accomplished film out of this year's high-profile pack, but in many ways, it's also tailor-made for attracting attention from Oscar voters, based on what we know about the Academy's history. As evidenced by the following breakdown, given its subject matter, tone, casting, and lead performance, Miller's latest stands as the sole lead awards contender at the moment.
In short, Foxcatcher's 2015 Oscar-night equation looks something like this:
IT'S A TRUE STORY.
The Oscars have long hailed films based on real-life events. As early as 1935, they were awarding Best Picture to Mutiny on the Bounty. Yet in the past two years, the Academy's fondness for true-events movies has skyrocketed. Five of the nine 2012 Best Picture nominees boasted scripts rooted in reality-based stories or situations (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables, Django Unchained, and Lincoln), and those numbers jumped further to six of the nine 2013 nominees (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Philips, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street). Furthermore, such movies have netted the top award in three of the past four years: The King's Speech, Argo, and 12 Years a Slave. While quite a few of Foxcatcher's competitors (notably The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game) are likewise based on actual events, none is getting nearly as much love.
IT'S ABOUT AMERICA.
Foxcatcher isn't just a true story, it's a true American Story, one that is fundamentally about the national character. There's no denying that the Academy is fond of celebrating movies set in (or from) other countries (as recently as 2010's The King Speech and 2011's The Artist). Nonetheless, by tackling inherently domestic questions of masculinity, patriotism, and crime (also addressed, from a very different angle, in last year's 12 Years a Slave), it may very well strike many voters as more "relevant" and "personal" than the formulaic, foreign-oriented The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game.
AND FATHERS AND SONS
If "America" seems like a Big Topic that may well appeal to Oscar voters, Foxcatcher has a second subject that's equally enticing. Miller's story is centered on the surrogate parent-child relationship shared by du Pont and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). It's a dynamic in which the Academy has previously shown great interest, awarding the first two Godfather efforts, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, The Last Emperor, Million Dollar Baby, and The Departed. That this relationship is more figurative than literal in Foxcatcher means that it's most closely aligned with the last three of those examples. However, as the disturbed wrestling/life coach to Schultz, du Pont comes across as not only an unhinged father figure, but also as a twisted mentor to an impressionable young protégé, à la Oscar-winning psychotic guru Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
OSCAR LOVES TRAGEDY.
Although the Academy is often attracted to inspirational material, there's considerable precedent for the top prize going to more tragic stories, including 1949's All the King's Men, 1954's On the Waterfront, 1969's Midnight Cowboy, 1971's The French Connection, 1972's The Godfather, 1974's The Godfather Part II, 1978's The Deer Hunter, 1992's Unforgiven, 1997's Titanic, 2004's Million Dollar Baby, and 2007's No Country for Old Men. Ending on a distinctly bleak note gives a film a sense of weighty import in the eyes of voters. Given the general superficiality of so many of its potential opponents, Foxcatcher's somber tone and desolate finale should be an asset.
STEVE CARELL'S AND CHANNING TATUM'S TRANSFORMATIONS
While the Academy likes to bestow Best Picture to films based in reality, it loves to do so in the Best Actor category, in which seven of the past 10 winners played real people (Jamie Foxx in Ray, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, Sean Penn in Milk, Colin Firth in The King's Speech, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer's Club).
That means the odds are heavily in Steve Carell's favor next February for his startling turn as Foxcatcher's du Pont. His chances are augmented by the fact that the Academy likes to single out beloved but previously un-awarded actors in roles that require them to both step out of their comfort zones and drastically change their appearances.
Think McConaughey's Dallas Buyer's Club weight loss, or Foxx's Ray impersonation, or Tom Hanks's Forest Gump mannerisms, or even Charlize Theron's Monster makeup work—all of them performances that demanded drastic external transformations by headliners who'd previously been thought of as good-looking stars rather than "serious" thespians. (Speaking of which, Tatum's surprisingly easy move to "serious" dramatic acting has been sped up a lot by Foxcatcher.) Carell's facial prosthetics and gray hair are merely additional elements that suggest he's a virtual lock for a prize, and further reason you should have Foxcatcher at the top of your Oscar pool stable now.
This article was originally published on esquire.com