WRITTEN REVIEW – Foxcatcher (2015)
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Written by: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo & Vanessa Redgrave
Music: Rob Simonsen & West Dylan Thordson
Release Date: January 9th 2015
In the early days of 2014, ‘Foxcatcher‘ was the first movie to get serious Oscar-buzz before the competition. And now with the 87th Academy Awards only a month away, ‘Foxcatcher‘ is still a dark horse favourite for many categories despite movies such as ‘Boyhood‘, ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)‘ and ‘The Theory of Everything‘ starting to steal its thunder, slightly. But it’s still been met with rave reviews from American critics with it being touted as a modern movie masterpiece. Is ‘Foxcatcher‘ an awards-highlight?
No. But it definitely could have been.
‘Foxcatcher‘ tells the true story of the Foxcatcher Farm Olympic Wrestling Team in the 1980s, led by multi-millionaire and social recluse, John du Pont (Carell). He invites Olympic Gold-Medal Winner Mark Schultz (Tatum) to lead his new team which he hopes will restore pride and hope to America as well as wanting Mark’s older brother David (Ruffalo) to join them. As they prepare for the upcoming 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea, Mark starts to develop an uneasy friendship with du Pont while David attempts to save his brother from potential catastrophe.
The story of the Foxcatcher Farm which culminated in an event that is disputed and theorised about even to this day is prime material for adaptation and ‘Foxcatcher‘ attempts to get inside the mind of John du Pont to find out what makes him tick and what drives him. While the movie actually gives the audience zero indication or reasoning for his actions towards the end of the movie (we’ll touch on that later) Steve Carell’s performance and the dialogue suggests a self-loathing individual.
The heir of the du Pont family fortune, John’s ancestors made their vast fortune through manufacturing gun-powder, munitions,war chemicals and polymers. They were business tycoons who helped America during times of conflict and in the 1980s self-made success stories through patriotism were prominent in politics in no small part thanks to the election of Ronald Reagan (“The actor!? He’s President!?”). John du Pont is the degenerate descendent of men who he considers true patriots and seems to condemn the fact that he’s ultimately only well-regarded for his $200 million inheritance as opposed to actual accomplishments. John opens up to Mark late in the movie by saying that his only friend growing up was the son of his mother’s chauffeur but even then his mother paid the boy to be his friend. Living in his mother’s shadow and possibly dealing with a closeted homosexuality that he can only deal with through his obsession with wrestling and Mark Schultz, du Pont feels forced to create his own hype.
He sets up his own over-50s wrestling tournament just so he can come first, he asks his friends to call him “Golden Eagle” without a hint of irony, writes speeches about how great he is for others to read at ceremonies (touting himself a “ornithologist philatelist philanthropist” as he snorts cocaine in an airborne helicopter) and commissions documentary filmmakers to interview his team just so they can praise him. What’s really interesting about this is that despite du Pont actively creating his own hype to compensate, he genuinely believes it. ‘Foxcatcher‘, on a conceptual level, is a movie about the dangers of wealth and self-obsession with Steve Carell, channelling that awkward, leering, rotting in his own privilege persona into a career-defining performance.
While the make-up and hair in ‘Foxcatcher‘ is ultimately a mixed-bag with a phoney looking hair-piece for Mark Ruffalo and strange colours and tones on du Pont’s face at the end of the movie, the subtle touches on Carell during the majority of the movie makes him almost unrecognisable. His elongated nose, slightly slanted eyes as well as false yellowing teeth play a big part in bringing John du Pont to the screen in a believable way. The resemblance is almost uncanny and Carell’s inflections, pauses and heavy breathing are perfect imitations of the real man (who can be seen talking in interviews from the 1980s with a quick YouTube/Google search). While it’s too early to see if Carell will win any major accolades for his portrayal, there’s no disputing the fact that he should be a part of the discussion.
Speaking of awards contention, Channing Tatum is brilliant as the brutish, dim-witted Mark Schultz so eager for recognition and meaning in his life that he’s willing to listen and respect the unhinged “Golden Eagle”. Tatum is an actor who deserves a massive amount of respect as he came onto the scene during the mid-naughties in poorly made chick-flicks and he was flat in almost everything he did. But after honing his craft and committing to acting over the past decade he’s become a force to be reckoned with comedically thanks to the success of ‘Magic Mike‘ and the ‘21 Jump Street‘ franchise, but his return to drama in ‘Foxcatcher‘ shows that he’s almost an entirely different performer than he was before.
He’s come a long way since ‘Step Up‘ and ‘Dear John‘.
Whether it’s small touches such as his low-hanging bottom lip or him repeatedly smashing his head into a hotel mirror, Tatum is completely committed to the role and his stoicism and willingness to idolise du Pont fills you with sympathy. In Mark’s eyes, du Pont is “the most generous man in America”. While Mark Ruffalo doesn’t get any showy moments or trailer-baitey lines of dialogue, he’s makes a strong impact as mild-mannered David Schultz, the man who seems to be the only one seeing that things are getting out of hand at the Foxcatcher farm. Ruffalo disappears behind a short beard and subtle character quirks such as his inability to say goodbye to anyone without shaking their hand first. He’s an endearing character and Ruffalo should be a part of the awards discussion just as much as Carell and Tatum.
‘Foxcatcher‘ is ultimately an actors-showcase for Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo and as a result there aren’t many other notable supporting players. Despite there being quite a sizeable number of hopefuls attending the Foxcatcher farm and training for competitions, they aren’t given names on screen and only seem to be there for the sake of historical accuracy. Having scenes between these characters interacting with the main trio as opposed to scene after scene of just the three would have greatly helped the pacing as well as give a broader, outsider’s view on the unfolding events for the audience to gravitate towards. One of the movie’s highlights is the relationship between John and his mother, but they only have two short notable scenes with each other, meaning that the dynamic the movie is trying to represent feels weak and doesn’t carry the weight that it really should.
One of David Schultz’s most notable character traits is the attachment he has to his family and how they’re preventing him from initially joining the wrestling team. “You can’t buy David.”, atones Mark as he tries to explain to John why he can’t just give him a blank-cheque. However, one scene ends with John angrily vowing to bring David to the estate by any means necessary.
The next shot has David arriving by helicopter with his family.
How did John convince David!? This should be a vital moment of character-growth and change for David, but it’s absent and no reference is made to what it took to bring David to the Foxcatcher Farm. However, director Bennett Miller will spend minutes at a time showing the wrestling team running around a forest, or du Pont staring out of his window at the cars arriving and leaving the estate. The priorities of ‘Foxcatcher‘ feels mismanaged considering the fact that it’s attempting to be a character study. While ‘Foxcatcher‘ shows why du Pont is the way he is when we first meet him, when the movie ultimately climaxes with an unearned pay-off, the audience don’t have a clue what motivated or drove him.
The climax in question actually took place 8 years after the 1988 Summer Olympics, but the movie does nothing to indicate a passage of time leaving the audience members to assume that it was the following winter. As well as completely throwing aside the events and potential changes in the character’s relationships during that 8 year gap.
I don’t care if Bennett Miller is an award winning director. That is bad story-telling.
If you’re familiar with the events of the movie, you’ll know that the events are building towards something, but on its own merits and to the uninformed viewer there’s no sense of escalation or dread. Recent movies such as ‘Lawless‘, ‘The Babadook‘ and ‘Nightcrawler‘ are able to instil a sense of constant dread even when very little is happening thanks to clever editing, sound design and the subtle actions of the characters. In ‘Foxcatcher‘ the movie is so full of inert scenes that there’s no sense of pace. This isn’t helped by the fact that the movie’s (brilliant) trailers give away every character out-burst, small moment of violence and confrontation meaning that there’s very little in the actual movie to anticipate.
When a 2-minute trailer has every noteworthy escalation, then what can a 134 minute movie have to offer? Incidentally, ‘Foxcatcher‘ feels A LOT longer than 134 minutes. Honestly, ‘Interstellar‘ felt shorter than ‘Foxcatcher’ despite being 35 minutes longer.
‘Foxcatcher‘ is a very flat movie when it comes to its pace and structure meaning that it’s far more interesting to learn the true-life events after-the-fact as opposed to watching it unfold in this film. This is exacerbated by the fact that ‘Foxcatcher‘ misses out on a lot of potential information that would have allowed audiences to get into John du Pont’s head, such as the fact that in real life he would frequently ask his wrestlers to search his attic for ghosts, or that he believed his family’s horses were receiving messages from Mars.
Sometimes truth IS stranger than fiction. Make sure to Google “Foxcatcher Five” when you get a chance (NSFW).
In the end, du Pont was a very strange individual and while ‘Foxcatcher‘ does an impeccable job bringing him to film on a conceptual level, when it comes to rationalising his actions later on at the Foxcatcher Farms, Bennett Miller offers the audience no insight. Coupled with the fact that potentially important supporting cast members are practically absent both emotionally and narratively and ‘Foxcatcher‘ is a very hollow, distant movie that is a showcase for outstanding performances – even if most of its runtime is made up of the actors starring out across the cloudy, green landscapes of Pennsylvania for literally minutes on end. Probably looking for awards.
‘Foxcatcher‘ is a good 134 minute actor’s showcase that is a couple more edits and additions away from a legitimately brilliant character-study. It’s ultimately a very disappointing movie-going experience that’s frustrating on reflection because of the resources at its disposal but unwillingness to offer more than a surface-level examination of the Foxcatcher leaders. The score is so minimalist and the scenes frequently so inactive that when the “shocking” climax rears its head it doesn’t feel remotely earned. It’s a good movie that ultimately works because of its stellar performances and confident visual-direction but Bennett Miller, in the end, seems too afraid to wrestle with the true nature and consequences of un-fettered patriotism mixed with capitalism. That ultimately begs the question; if you’re not going to examine those ideals, then why adapt this story in the first place?
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Posted: 11th Jan 15