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Loners, Obsessives and Social Outcasts Inhabit the Oscar Landscape

In a handful of buzzed-about movies, the quest for self-actualization is fraught with peril

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When a film’s protagonist is in conflict with himself, it’s hard for the audience to choose a side.

But such is the dramatic high-wire act being performed in several of the season’s more prominent movies, in which the key characters are conflicted, confounded, confused and/or contradictory — searching for their identities and their souls. And they’re not necessarily likable.

How an anti-hero is positioned has much to do with his screen persona. In “Wild,” for instance, Jean-Marc Vallee’s adaptation of the Cheryl Strayed memoir, Reese Witherspoon’s character is, first of all, played by Reese Witherspoon.

“Who’s not going to care about Reese Witherspoon?” Vallee asks. “Particularly her face, she’s so vulnerable. And out of her comfort zone: For the first 10 minutes, audiences are going to say ‘you’re going to try something? I’m going to follow you.’ ”

Add to this Vallee’s structuring of Strayed’s story in which the less savory aspects of her life — sex addiction, drug addiction — are visited in flashbacks, after we’ve already seen the Cheryl character embark on her 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. The audience, which sees the story from Cheryl’s p.o.v., knows she’s exorcizing the demons before they meet the demons — and thus are already on her side.

Far more ambiguous is the double-sided identity crisis of “Foxcatcher,” based on the real-life story of John du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to the chemical company fortune, and Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Their tortured relationship touches on class, privilege, patriarchy and jingoistic Americanism; neither Schultz nor du Pont — who murdered Mark’s wrestler brother Dave Schultz in 1996 — has any idea who he is in the film, even if he thinks he does.

Michael Byers for Variety

“I think it’s all there to see,” director Bennett Miller says. The drunken, late-night wrestling between du Pont and Mark Schultz, for instance. “You have an Olympic gold medalist who is struggling and he’s contacted by one of the wealthiest men in the nation who wants to support him.”

The film’s considerable tension is generated by both characters’ inability to articulate their feelings, or acknowledge what is happening. Mark enters into du Pont’s plan — to house and train an Olympic team at his Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania — “with great idealism,” Miller says. “But their goals are perverted into something else.” They do drugs, don’t train, and Mark “is paraded around as a trophy boy.”

One of the more effective aspects of Carell’s very physical performance is du Pont’s look of puzzlement when anything doesn’t go exactly his way.

“It’s an inability to see something as it is,” Miller says, “because what it is is impermissible. If what has just happened has exposed any aspects of his character he doesn’t want to acknowledge, he has to pretend they don’t exist.”

J.M.W. Turner pretends his children don’t exist in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” the story of the proto-impressionist British painter (Timothy Spall) who, each time he’s asked, denies he has any children.

“I don’t think he’s in denial,” Leigh says. “I think he just can’t be bothered talking about them.”

The film can’t get into the legal minutiae of Turner’s life but Turner spent much time late in life writing and rewriting his will and, as shown via Spall’s astonishing portrayal, was a man who was both gregarious and witty, and as solitary as a stone.

“We found in our research that Turner was an extremely complex, complicated and contradictory guy,” says Leigh. “I think these things are going on in our representation of him. Obviously, the kind of work he did, not to mention how prolific he was, makes for a character who exists in a certain amount of solitude. But he’s also part of an artistic establishment and world in which he’s both an insider and an outsider — an insider because he’s part of it, and an outsider because he’s so much more of a genius than the rest of them.”

Untapped genius is the preoccupation of director Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” about a jazz-obsessed young drummer (Miles Teller) and a Bobby Knight-like music instructor (J.K. Simmons) who is looking for “the next Charlie Parker.”

Chazelle was himself a member of a highly rated jazz program while in high school, led by a similarly cruel, belittling teacher.

“He didn’t physically abuse anyone,” says Chazelle, “but he created a climate of fear — the screaming, the switching of drummers, finding somebody out of tune, the down-the-line, military drill-like process, the rage he would get into. He was a terrifying, terrifying person, and everybody was scared of him.”

And yet, Chazelle says, “under his tutelage, his program was the best high school jazz program in the country — at least according to Downbeat magazine.”

Teller’s character is so intent on proving his mettle that he insists on performing at a recording session despite seriously injuring himself in a car accident while racing to reach the gig on time.

The question, Chazelle says — one echoed by “Mr. Turner,” “Wild” and “Foxcatcher” — is “was it all worth it?”

Chazelle explains that his personal martinet made him a better jazz drummer. In the film, however, he “wanted to make the question a little more stark by making the character even less of a Mr. Holland, giving him behavior where there wasn’t even a gray zone. There’s stuff that Fletcher does in this movie where you’re not in a gray zone anymore. It’s just categorically wrong. Maybe even totally insane.”