Monday, May 11, 2015

Foxcatcher Review - A Different Shade of the 80s

Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher got a critical response that clashed with its box office reception. Made for $24M, the movie featured Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carell in the fictionalized adaptation of an incredible true-life story – how two brothers, both gold-medal Olympic wrestlers, were affected by wealthy heir John du Pont’s love of their sport. Released at the very end of 2014, it only earned $15M in theaters.

Yet the buzz from my friends was persistent and positive. That and all the awards attention were what motivated me to make time for it. Miller took the best director award at Cannes in May of that year, it received three major Golden Globe nods, and its Oscar nominations included Best Director, Best Actor (Carell), Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay (E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman). Odds are better than not that it doesn't stink, y'know?

As its narrative unspooled before me, I felt a great sense of admiration. Every element I would use as a cinematic benchmark was more than satisfied. By roughly the middle-end of the film, sequences can feel a bit too much like vignettes, but the performances and cinematography were stellar. I had expected Foxcatcher to be good, but I hadn’t expected that its strengths could render its flaws nearly invisible.

I already wrote my most efficient plot summary ever above, but let me expound a little. Mark Schultz is an Olympic wrestler with a simple, humble life. His apartment and car are as spare as can be. When not scrounging up whatever cash he can, or eating by himself in sh---y little rooms, Mark trains at the gym run by his older brother, David.

Dave is smaller than his sibling, yet he’s the stronger man, the one people are more interested in, and he’s the one with a business, a wife, and kids. Mark’s opportunity to step out of his brother’s shadow stems from John du Pont wanting to sponsor the next American Olympic wrestling team, but no one can predict how this unexpected patronage will impact the Schultz boys.

I liked how unpredictable the film could be. It's odd that it spends so much time in Mark's headspace/perspective, then transitions to center on John and David. It's interesting, in that the picture's focus fades away from our sole protagonist just as he turns to drug abuse – when he’s effectively drifting away from his own life.

That, in essence, is the stem of the movie’s major failing. It’s a character study, but it spreads its focus over three characters, and it doesn’t quite delve deeply enough into two of them. Mark gets the most time and development, and yet he’s on the sidelines for a long while. David gets some good character scenes, probably because Ruffalo is so damn exceptional – but there’s really less than a handful of moments that develop the character, and he’s also absent for a long stretch. Even when David does step in as a more prominent figure, the audience doesn’t get enough time with him.

John, meanwhile, is present throughout the picture, and many scenes do neatly convey things about his nature. Yet he’s intended to be a mysterious figure, for the most part – so it’s really easy to debate that he doesn’t actually get enough depth over the course of 2 hours and 14 minutes... of a drama that is not packed with action... It’s really quite surprising in a film that otherwise only screws up when it uses footage of an MMA fight that would never have been televised in 1987. This opens up the possibility that the movie got two Oscar noms based purely on the strength of its performances, not the quality of the roles in question.

But it’s easy to understand how this could be the case, as Carell, Ruffalo, and Tatum truly do great work. Mark’s life is fascinating and oddly semi-internalized, David is charismatic and interesting, and John du Pont is downright hypnotic. The clock flies by as you wait to see what’s going to happen with this trio, and despite the lack of big scenes and the fairly quiet tone, my attention never wandered.

Better still, the actors’ efforts are bolstered by some incredibly well-executed and well-designed visuals. Many shots here do no more than make you watch Channing, often as he’s sitting or standing and thinking things through. That's kind of necessary, I suppose, as Mark is a good guy who has a very, very hard time opening up to anyone. A lot is said about the younger Schultz without any words, just by what the camera conveys.

Similarly, Mark’s plane trip works so well despite the mundane event it expresses – the placing of the camera behind the back of his head combines with the confined airplane/airport environment to create a true sense of claustrophobia. When the next scene brings us to the wide-open terrain of the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania, the sudden change has a powerful effect. These sorts of tricks abound here, grounding the events that transpire and helping to pull the viewer into the story.

Incredibly, with no trace of big-brother bullying, Tatum's part seems to be helpless before his older sibling.

There’s a great use of distant shots in Foxcatcher. They not only give a great sense of place to the cinematography, they suit the languid, leisurely pace of the picture. They also serve to remove the audience from the action and to make us think about what we’re witnessing.

Then, other scenes pull us right in all over again. Every time Mark and David hug, the younger sibling tucks his head in so much that Tatum actually looks smaller than Ruffalo, and it’s simultaneously sad and sweet. Another moment is set within a bathroom. In the mirror, Channing's reflected face is out of focus, whereas the side of his jaw that's in frame is clear.

As Mark's inspection of his face deepens and almost starts to turn into self-abuse, the real face goes out of focus, and the one in the mirror becomes clearer. The effect of these visual aspects is profound, and the two final sequences hold a lot of tragi-pathetic poignancy because of the framing...

In addition to a visual sensibility that had me thinking David Fincher filmed this, I liked the score a lot. Quiet and delicate, never intrusive, the main theme made me think of pieces of a puzzle falling into place. That’s pretty much the perfect sort of music to use, as the picture itself clues us in to the factors – Mark’s depressing past and his downtrodden present, John’s own past, and how his small life clashes with his social status, David’s odd position in the middle of these two quasi-contained men – as they inform how things turn out the way that they do. The soundtrack made me think of a really good BBC production, but I’m not sure which one.

Foxcatcher is a damn odd drama – it’s a character study that abandons its lead partway through, and doesn’t really do enough to develop the figures that displace him. It’s a period piece that is steeped in the political and social atmosphere of its time, yet seldom betrays its setting in the many other ways that it could do so (the lousy old portable game was nice, though). It’s a movie that makes the viewer wait, but lacks a pressing storyline. Actually, I was never certain what it was that I was waiting for.

I really enjoyed watching this, though. I loved the central performances, the production, and the cinematography. On the basis of this, I’ll keep an eye out for Bennett Miller’s future work, and I’d like to think that you’ll feel the same way if you follow my advice and watch this soon. Whatever the flaws, it’s a master-class in visuals, mood, and pacing, and the actors do such fine work.

I have a feeling that I’m about to queue up a lot of movies just because Ruffalo is in them. Hopefully, in those films, I won't have to see Ruffalo wrestling with the destructive, muscle-bound green monster known as... jealousy.


  1. I saw Foxcatcher earlier this year and it was surprisingly good. I totally agree that it's strengths lie in character study(Channing Tatum was well suited to his role) rather than direct narrative.

    1. Thanks, lady t. Yes, it's odd that it's a good movie and quite enjoyable... but without it being incredibly deep or having a gripping story - since it's almost like a mystery/thriller, but then it doesn't bother to actually set those elements up.

      Maybe it would play even more strongly if it announced that it was based on real events in the beginning? (ps, I'm really hoping I wasn't distracted for a second and that the film in fact announced that)


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