Friday, January 2, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014-- #10: "Foxcatcher" Builds to a Fevered Breaking Point

This is the second in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

There are two types of people who will watch Foxcatcher: those who know the details of the story it is based on and those who do not. When I saw the film, I was in the latter category, and I imagine those who do know the tragic real-life events which inspired the film had a much different—but nonetheless equally compelling—experience. For those who don’t know the story of Dave and Mark Schultz—two Olympic gold-medalist wrestlers whose lives became entwined with that of the incredibly wealthy John DuPont—I will keep this analysis of the film free of spoilers, so feel free to read ahead. I will only divulge one tidbit of information: it is a true crime story. I mention this because I think it is essential to know going in. I mention it because it was the only thing I knew before going in to see the film myself. And I mention it because, even if you didn’t know this, just a few minutes into the film, you would intrinsically sense that something terrible is going to happen.

That sense of foreboding is exactly what sustains Foxcatcher, which clocks in at over two hours. Director Bennett Miller keeps the film at an incredibly slow pace that, in lesser hands, would have felt pretty agonizing. But there is just a constant sense of worry; an ever-present tension that makes everything feel dangerous. Even when very little is happening on screen, it feels gripping.

Steve Carell helps Channing Tatum work out.

One of the ways Miller keeps this sense of danger is by emphasizing the subject matter. Two of the characters on which the film focuses are wrestlers and the inherent violence in this profession is a suitable backdrop for the film's running sense of dread. And while Steve Carell is getting a lot of attention for his dramatic turn as John DuPont, the main character is actually wrestler Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum. Tatum portrays Mark as incredibly reserved. It becomes clear early on that this is not a man comfortable in his own skin. We never learn too much about Mark, but what we do learn suggests an incredibly insecure and vulnerable individual (which, of course, contrasts beautifully with the powerful physical presence Tatum’s figure provides). He was raised by his older brother Dave, and so Mark views him as both an older brother and as a father figure of sorts. He wants so eagerly to please him—as if his only sense of self-worth is linked directly towards Dave’s approval. Dave (a wonderful Mark Ruffalo) gives forth that approval willingly—treating Mark with sensitivity without being condescending. But amongst that sensitivity Tatum gives us cause to worry about what Mark is capable of. As gently as Tatum portrays Mark, there is always a volatility to him. Wrestling is, after all, aggressive by design. And there is a feeling that Mark—and, indeed, anyone we see on screen—could snap at any time. Miller brings Foxcatcher to a boiling point, but it’s a slow boil. The heat is always there, starting out as light frustration and building to a full-blown panic, until the aforementioned criminal act occurs and everything sort of explodes. But while we’ve been waiting for such a climax the entire film, it nonetheless is surprising in the moment. The underlying volatility actually emphasizes the sense of something about to burst. As much as we expect it, we don’t know what to expect, because when the film is on such a slow boil, we know anything could happen. If you don’t know the crime in question like me, your mind will race to try and figure it out. For a long time I was convinced that John DuPont had taken Mark under his wing because he wanted to eventually hunt him for sport.

Spoiler: My hunch was not correct.

Miller ‘s most recent success was the statistical sports movie Moneyball, but the film of his that Foxcatcher most vividly brings to mind is Capote, and in many ways the films can be seen as companion pieces. Both deal with true-life crimes, both feature, at their center, enigmatic and manipulative figures portrayed by actors in career-defining roles (it would be pretty easy to argue that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance was the best of his all too short career, and Steve Carell as DuPont similarly rises to unexpected heights…but more on that later), and both have that previously mentioned sense of foreboding. But there’s one key difference: the crime in Capote happens before the film even begins, but the crime in Foxcatcher happens only at the very end. The aftermath of this crime is only touched upon in the epilogue. In other words, while Capote is concerned with the remorse of a criminal after they have been caught, and an examination of a crime that has already occurred, But, in both Capote and Foxcatcher, Miller refuses to give us an easy answer. A major part of Capote is Truman Capote trying to figure out why Perry Smith—a seemingly sensitive young man—would kill a family “in cold blood.” 

Hey, that's the name of the book!

And Truman never gets his answer. At one point, he loses his patience with Perry and flat out asks him “Why do you think I keep coming here?” As Truman writes his book, he finds himself completely lost as to his main character’s motivations. The same is true here—the confrontation between Mark Schultz and John DuPont is tough to figure out because both characters act in such odd ways.  Mark’s anger and tendency to revert into himself only intensifies as the film goes on, and he reaches an unstable and irrational point. DuPont himself is even more of an enigma. Presenting himself as a respectable and well-versed member of high society (the DuPonts, for the uninitiated, are one of the most wealthy families in the country—I recently heard rumors that they, and this is not a joke, basically control the entirety of Delaware). But as the film goes on, the fa├žade of John DuPont begins to crack and we see the character’s innermost delusions and lunacy. He becomes erratic, he becomes unpredictable and, yes, he becomes scary. Miller can only guess at what was going on in the real John DuPont’s mind throughout the events of the film, and because those thoughts aren’t known, the film cannot provide the answers that, say, a fictional story might have. But, although the ending is ambiguous in its central question of “why did this happen” it is not unsatisfying. Which is no small feat.

Michael Scott's life took a dark turn after leaving Scranton.

One of the central reasons this seemingly impossible task is accomplished is because of the performances of Carell, Ruffalo, and Tatum, who craft such defined performances that we’re willing to trust that they’re in control of their characters even as those characters make ill-advised choices. Of the trio, the one getting the bulk of the attention is Carell, and it’s not difficult to see why. Whenever a comedic actor takes a dramatic turn and does so well it makes waves. And Carell certainly rises to the occasion. His John DuPont is always unnerving, always a little bit off. Just as Mark constantly seeks the approval of his older brother, John craves the acknowledgment of his dying mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who views his actions as foolish. Carell’s performance is remarkable in its consistency. The film asks the audience to alter its perception of John as Mark does—at first Mark views him as a mentor, then as a menace. But Carell never changes his performance—he simply crafts one which can fit both roles. He is charismatic in his awkwardness—allowing the allure of his vast wealth to compensate for his own failings; he’s naturally soft-spoken, and his intentionally apparent crooked nose—a prosthetic that is earning the film awards recognition for makeup--would not make him the life of the party that he is were it not for his last name. Carell’s lines are all delivered in a measured way—a sort of New England drawl if you can imagine such a thing, which allows the character to appear thoughtful even when he is not. This allows the character to maintain elusive to the audience—we never are really sure where he stands. Is he aware of what’s going on around him and a credible authority? Or is he an unstable child who, unironically insists that all of is his friends call him Golden Eagle? When we find out the character regularly uses cocaine, it is simultaneously surprising but also makes perfect sense. Carell plays him as a complete and utter contradiction, and it’s a fascinating one.

But, seriously though, that nose.

And, it should be noted that Carell finds some much needed humor in DuPont’s sheer weirdness (oh the lives of the rich and famous). But while the idea of Steve Carell being funny is hardly a novelty, I have to say that the comedic bits were probably the most surprising and impressive part of Carell’s performance for me. Yes, Steve Carell is often funny, but typically in a much sillier way than here—his humor growing from his sheer commitment and boundless energy. But here, the humor at DuPont’s expense is much dryer, much more surreal and askew than what we typically see. So, Carell showed versatility not only by showing his dramatic side, but by showing a variation in his comedic side.

Carell also portrays him as frail. For all of DuPont’s posturing and projections of greatness, he is a very weak individual, and one worries he could snap both physically and emotionally. This is only underscored by the fact that he’s acting against Tatum, who is roughly the size of a baby truck, and whose gruffness only further contrasts Carell’s almost dainty dialect. With a crowded Best Actor field this year (what else is new) Carell has emerged as the favorite to gain a nomination, and Tatum has fallen off the radar, and while I'm sad about this, I can see the reasoning why. Carell certainly has the more outwardly present character. But I think it’s a shame Tatum is mostly out of the conversation. Tatum redefined my perceptions of him as an actor even more than Carell. It’s a subtle performance, and, more than Carell’s, is vital to the film’s success. Carell’s performance would not work without the antithesis of Tatum. Tatum has Mark’s physicality down pat—a sort of uncertain shuffle. It is clear that wrestling is Mark’s life—he is incapable of anything outside of the sport. His body does not seem to know how to move when it’s not in the ring. The character may or may not be intelligent, but he clearly does not see himself as being so. He’s immature in many ways, and Tatum carries himself like a child who is wearing his dad’s suit and worries someone will notice. As other characters encourage him and remind him of his well-deserved accomplishments (winning gold at the Olympics is, after all, no small feat) you can tell his own doubts. It’s a beautiful, layered performance. When John DuPont—who acted as Mark’s very clear father figure for a significant time—eventually turns on him, Tatum’s anger is palpable. But amongst the anger there is a lot more—confusion, sadness, fear, and above all, a tragic sense of hurting and betrayal. He doesn’t understand what is happening or what to do, and he’s scared to admit that to himself. I left the theater thinking about Carell’s commanding performance, but as time went on, it was Tatum’s that stuck with me.

One of many tenderer moments between the Schultz brothers.

Which brings us to the third prominent entity in this story—Mark’s older brother, Dave. Mark Ruffalo is one of those actors who can instantly improve any project with which he’s involved. He elevates the work of those around him—molding his performance to compliment whoever he is sharing the screen with and making both of them better. It’s a rare skill, and is on full display here. With the aforementioned sense of unrest pervading the film, it could easily be a little too much to take. It’s bleak enough as it stands, but it needs something to cut up that sense of dread. And while Steve Carell does provide some humor, this is where Ruffalo comes in strongest. While Ruffalo matches Tatum’s physicality as a wrestler, and also moves with a distinct walk and mobility, Ruffalo’s Dave finds a certain ease with his movement and speech. He is not burdened by the worries and doubts of his brother. And, most importantly, he can separate himself from the wrestling. He loves the sport, but unlike both John and Mark, he does not become overly invested in it to the point of self destruction. He has a family, and he has a life. And, also unlike John and Mark, we see him smile regularly. You fall in love with this character almost immediately. He has a sweetness, a lightheartedness, and a geniality. He’s endearing, and demonstrates the effortless charisma and leadership that John DuPont so wishes he could emulate. Dave is not as prominently featured as Mark or John, but is absolutely crucial to the film—you are relieved to see him on film if only because his presence indicates the possibility of hope. It is mentioned several times that he’s known on the wrestling circuit not just as Dave Schultz, but as “The Great Dave Schultz,” and hearing this sort of sets him up as a superhero of sorts, and he fits the role to a tee.

But while this description might make Dave sound frustratingly perfect, Ruffalo prevents him from being so. Dave is free of arrogance—his compassion and clear tenderness with his younger and significantly troubled brother humanizes him. And, later on in the film, we get to see Dave out of his comfort zone, which you imagine is rare for him. One of the most memorable scenes is when John DuPont finances a documentary to be made about him and about what a great coach he is. The documentarian interviews the ever-polite Dave, and tries to coax Dave into referring to John as a “mentor,” which he certainly never was. Dave is unsure how to respond, and we see the two very different ways that these two brothers have reacted to the overbearing presence of John DuPont. It becomes apparent in this scene that while Mark is more outwardly troubled by how John controls him, Dave clearly is too—he just does not wear his emotions as clearly on his sleeve. It’s a fantastic scene where nothing is spelled out too clearly for the audience, and yet you pick up on Dave’s thought process immediately.

Dave calms down his brother.

Now that I have sung the praises of these three performers, it’s time to return to the director, Bennett Miller, who deserves a hefty amount of credit not only for these performances on their own, but how they work together so cohesively. The three men at the center of Foxcatcher fit together like a puzzle. John offers the passion for wrestling—he loves the sport and, more importantly, the glory that comes with it. For him, the personal triumph of winning in such a physical arena is where the appeal lies, and knows he cannot attain such a high level of greatness on his (one of his assistants has to pay his wrestling opponent to take a dive and let John win a wrestling tournament that he himself sponsors) which is why he approaches Mark to coach him in the first place. He does not achieve greatness, he merely buys it and puts his name on the accomplishments of others. This is seen most clearly when he claims the world championship trophy which Mark won and puts it on his own mantle.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some thrust themselves upon greatness.

Mark, meanwhile, represents the dedication to the craft, which manifests itself in his physical prowess. Mark’s skill as a wrestler predominantly comes from his work ethic. He is constantly training, keeping himself in his prime by any means possible. This is his whole life. In the opening scene, he speaks to a group of children about what having a gold medal means. And he says it’s about work ethic and dedication. His approach to a problem is to go after it headfirst. The wrestler and his mentality are both all muscle.

And then there’s Dave, who represents a more mental side of things. He represents the art of the craft. While Dave Schultz is undoubtedly in good shape, consider that one is played by Channing Tatum and the other is played by a slightly balding Mark Ruffalo—Dave is never meant to be the physically stronger of the two. When Mark and Dave talk about wrestling, Dave is always the one who brings up strategy. His focus is more on technique than physicality. And this is why Dave always seems like the odd one out of the three, because he is a rational mind dealing with two people who practice irrational ways of thinking. He achieves greatness through thought and logic, through a keen intellect and tactics as opposed to strength on its own.

All three are necessary, and all three build the film into what it is. I can understand why the Gotham Awards, rather than nominate any of these actors individually, simply decided to give an award to the joint performance of all three. Their performances are one and the same. Different cogs in one well-oiled machine. And that machine runs well thanks to Miller. While Foxcatcher is doing well on the awards circuit, Miller is not. He’s being beaten out by the stylized work of David Fincher, the assured hand of Ava DuVernay, and the sheer patience and ambition of Richard Linklater. All of these directors are deserving of accolades, and I don’t mean to say that Miller deserves a nomination more than they do, but I wish he were more of a presence on the awards circuit this year. His work with his cast is arguably the best of the year, and while many directors were able to bring out exemplary performances this year, Miller’s work with these actors is nothing short of amazing.

As an example, the first time we see Dave, it’s when Mark meets with him at a gym to train. They say hello, and wordlessly begin to spar. It’s a quiet moment, and the actors and director bring out the beauty and grace that comes with such a physical activity. They are not fighting, they are building upon an emotional connection. For the emotionally distant Mark, who only has his brother in his life, this is his interpretation of intimacy. They spar, and when one is pinned, they seem to telepathically understand when to start again. And then they fight again, two brothers forever linked by their chosen sport, whose fighting is contradictorily sweet and kind. Watching the brothers wrestle tells a story. We instinctively know how much they mean to each other. Just as how Miller can make us feel immediately ill at ease just by a subtle change in lighting or sound. It’s a film that stays with you, it’s a film that surprises you, and it’s a film that extracts beauty and meaning from a bleak and tragic setting.

The real life Dave and Mark Schultz, after winning their gold medals.

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