Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Foxcatcher

There’s a scene in Bennett Miller’s new film, Foxcatcher, that I can’t figure out. It’s an early scene, one of the first in the film, and it has dominated my mind since I saw the film some days ago. At the start of Foxcatcher, we’re introduced to a large, solemn man who we come to learn is Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Mark doesn’t say a lot, but in these introductory scenes, there’s really no need to. He eats ramen noodles in his dingy apartment, struggles through a speech to elementary school kids, then goes to work out at the gym. And here’s the scene I want to talk about. Mark arrives at the gym and as he makes his way through the locker room, many of the other wrestlers look at Mark disapprovingly. Miller doesn’t linger on the shot, but it’s clear that when Mark enters the room, a shift in tone occurs.

But why? Why the stares from the other athletes? This is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene that is never referenced again in the film. And although it may seem like a miniscule thing to latch onto, I have not been able to let this moment go. Think about what those stares say of Mark. Are the other athletes jealous because Mark is a gold medalist? Are they defensive because Mark is a prick? Maybe neither, maybe both. By the end of the movie, I realized I was never really able to figure Mark out. Because he says so little, it is difficult to pinpoint the precise root of his aggression and fear. His anger, for one, seems constantly misguided. But why? Why, why, why? Exactly.
I don’t want movie characters to explain themselves. Typically, the films that make the most money every year are filled with characters who, when they’re angry, they verbalize why they’re angry. When they’re happy, they tell you why they’re happy. When they’re sad, you’ll get an explanation. And on and on. This oversimplification of emotion dilutes films for me. I have close friends, people I’ve known for years, that I still can’t figure out. I have friends who are happy one day for no apparent reason, then depressed the following day. That’s life. Feelings change, guards stay up and we rarely explain exactly how we feel at every given moment, usually because we ourselves can’t explain it. On film, I call that depth. I call it mystery and reverence. I pay attention to film characters I don’t fully understand. I’m intrigued by them. They feel real, alive. In the open.

This is a common thread in Bennett Miller’s work: why do people act the way they do? Never has this theme been better explored by Miller than it is in Foxcatcher. Soon after the locker room scene, Mark gets a call from a man representing the eccentric millionaire, John du Pont (Steve Carell). Du Pont wants Mark to move to his expansive Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania and train full time to become the best wrestler in the world. But why? We’re never really given a clear reason as to why du Pont is so taken with Mark, just that he can afford to be, and so he is.
When they’re alone, Mark and du Pont get on rather well. While others may be off-put by Mark’s silence, du Pont appears to appreciate it. Du Pont wants Mark to see him as a mentor. A teacher, a coach, a father. But because there is a latent dread that encompasses the entirety of Foxcatcher, we assume their relationship will soon sour. It does, for reasons I won’t explain, and after some time, du Pont invites Mark’s older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to the estate to help craft the finest wrestling team that has ever lived.

Channing Tatum is an actor I’ve championed heavily, mostly because he has a lot working against him. He broke into the business based on good looks and epic dance moves. That led to a string of mediocre-to-bad performances in equally bland films. Despite this, Tatum has actively pushed himself to new and challenging material. Foxcatcher is his greatest challenge yet, and he seizes it. The brute physicality of Mark is something I expected from Tatum. That’s not meant to diminish the hard training Tatum had to endure to make the film, but I’m not surprised that he has the movements of a wrestler down perfectly. What’s more impressive about his work is the nuance he gives Mark; an ambiguity that is immensely compelling.

The Steve Carell we know does not appear in Foxcatcher. So immersed is the actor in John du Pont that Carell ceases to exist. Make-up helps with this, but it’s an attitude that makes Carell’s du Pont so inherently creepy. His movements are that of a plump snake, moving slowly, with purpose, plotting his next move, waiting to snap. It’s a performance consumed by a lifetime of dread and inadequacy. When du Pont walks into a room, you have no idea what to expect. Whether he strolls onto the practice mat with a pistol, or drunkenly ass-grabs with his team in a trophy room, there is a danger to everything Carell does in this film. It is a literal career transformation that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.
Having noted Tatum and Carell’s superb work, the real star of the film is Mark Ruffalo. And the bitch of it is, I can’t really tell you why. Simply put, Mark Ruffalo is just that good. There’s a subtlety to Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz that defies fancy adjectives. There’s nothing “flashy” about Ruffalo’s work here. He never raises his voice or speaks more than a few sentences at a time. He has no “hero” moments or tearful pleas of acceptance. Instead, Ruffalo creates a real man. A real and ordinary man who wants to please his suspicious wife (Sienna Miller, in a small but vital role), and do right by his conflicted brother. Physically, Ruffalo’s command of Dave is marvelous. Ruffalo, a wrestler in his youth, moves with effortlessness on the mat. His hunched-over stance and rapid movements are so precise and impressive. It may seem like Ruffalo is doing nothing as Dave, but believe me, he’s doing everything. The fact that you can’t necessarily tell makes all the difference.

Foxcatcher is an audaciously cold film. It’s photographed with a purposeful detachment, bathed in cold hues and natural light. It’s obvious that Miller isn’t concerned with blatant flash, but rather acute atmosphere. The performances speak to this as well. The heroes aren’t heroic and the villains aren’t purely evil. If redemption is possible, it isn’t attainted for us to see. Foxcatcher is a film that wants to be observed. It asks questions that it doesn’t answer, fractures relationships that aren’t repaired – it wants us to stare at it, asking why. Why do these people act the way they do? Why are they so stubborn, so mad, so real? Why, indeed. A-

58 comments:

  1. Great review. I am impatient for this film. :)

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    1. Thanks man! Really valued this movie. Hope you have a chance to see it soon.

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    2. Will you do next The Homesman review?

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    3. I was thinking about it. It was a surprisingly good film.

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    4. Yeah I think I will. Should have it posted in the next few days.

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    5. I just saw Foxcatcher...pretty disappointed. It was pretty boring and I don't think that it was THAT well acted. I mean: Channing Tatum wasn't good (as usual), he is always to forced and the only good performance he gave that I like is in 22 Jump Street; Steve Carell was great but I didn't feel that he was better that he is usual, I saw yesterday The 40 Year-Old Virgin and I loved him I that role and I loved him in this role too but he wasn't better than usual; Mark Ruffalo was fantastic, he took the script and chew it, he gave life to his character. Over all I don't feel that it's a SO great movie, it has some great moments but it's too slow. A-.

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    6. Well, looks like we disagree on a lot with this film, and that's all right. It definitely is slow, but I really appreciate its style.

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  2. "the real star of the film is Mark Ruffalo." - YEAH BABY! :P

    I'm so thrilled to read all this praise for Mark and especially Carell - I read some reviews that weren't so kind to him, which is weird because he is already so insanely creepy in the trailer alone. I love Bennett's direction in his other two films - they are so slow burning but gripping and he makes the characters so interesting simply by letting us carefully observe them. Amazing review, I really cannot wait to see this film, it's at the moment my most anticipated especially that Moneyball slowly but patiently crawled into my top 30 of all time. And it didn't have Ruffalo in it :D

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    1. I really think you'll like this film, because you seem to "get" Miller's style. Ruffalo is on fire in this, even if it isn't a "sexy" performance ;)

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  3. Love your review! I've been championing Channing Tatum since his great years of 2012, where he was so good in Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street, and I'm so happy he is getting serious recognition now :) Of course, the same is with Carell, who has always been consistently good and I love that he is getting his moment too. Mark, what can I say, he's great in everything. I loved Capote and Moneyball, and I really admire Bennett Miller's directing style (I think you and Sati summed it up very well), and I can't wait to see this!

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    1. Thanks! Stylistically, this is my favorite Miller film yet. Moneyball may be "easier," if you will, but Foxcatcher is so dreadful in all the best ways. It's such a dangerous movie. Hope you get to see it soon!

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  4. This is one of the movies i'm looking forward to checking out the most right now. I have loved Steve Carell on The Office for all the years he was on there, but i never thought he would be a good dramatic actor. Looks like i was wrong there.

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    1. Hey man, that was a fair enough assumption on your part. But dude, he is incredible in this film. He really goes for it.

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  5. I'm stoked that the film is coming to Atlanta in the coming weeks as I'm eager to see this as I liked what Miller has done so far. The only other film of his I need to see is The Cruise.

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    1. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on this one. I really want to see The Cruise too. Need to spend some time tracking that one down.

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  6. Man, I've been waiting to see this film since I think May, and it won't come to any theaters near me. I've just been waiting and waiting for it to be released and now I have to wait some more. Anyway, glad to hear it's really good. I thought all three of these guys would do great, but I didn't think Ruffalo would be considered the best. I actually had/have high hopes that Channing Tatum would get an Oscar nomination for this, but we'll see. I'll probably check back once I've seen the film, the nearest theater that is playing it is over 50 miles away from me (all 3 of the local ones aren't showing it), I've been considering heading out there, but just haven't yet. Anyway, great review.

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    1. Thanks man. Tough to live far away from an indie house theater. Maybe make it a day trip and catch two or three flicks? Tatum is fantastic in this movie, but Best Actor is such a tight race this year. Carell's performance is the "showier" of the two, so IF one of them makes it in, I think it'll be him. Still, they both deserve to.

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  7. I never really paid much attention to that scene you reference, but I agree that Miller is a director who lets his characters be humans with emotions that aren't always explained.

    Ruffalo was the heart of the film for me and after seeing it at TIFF I was baffled as to why all the early reviews failed to mention him. Carell and and Tatum are both excellent, but they have the "showier" roles. Ruffalo is the soul, he is the glue that holds both the film and the relationship between Tatum and Carell's characters together.

    This is a gut-wrenching film and I won't win any awards for making you smile, but boy, it delivers in spades. Great review.

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    1. Thanks Sam! I've read a few reviews of this film since yesterday, and I'd say half of them barely mention Ruffalo. But that actually makes sense to me. Like I said, it seems like he's doing nothing, but he's really doing everything. So I can see how some people might "miss" that.

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  8. Excellent review! I'm so looking forward to this (and now I'll be looking for that split second scene you mentioned at the beginning too.)

    I caved and read up on what actually happened first. I said I wasn't going to, but I don't think it will effect my viewing experience.

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    1. Thanks! I knew something bad happened in real life, but I didn't know what exactly. Still, I think you'll dig the flick. Can't wait to hear what you think!

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  9. Sounds like a fascinating film. I'm also looking forward to seeing Carell push his acting ability. I know he has it in him. Great review Alex.

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    1. Thanks Dan, appreciate you stopping by. It really is a dark little flick.

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  10. It looks absolutely incredible and your review is fantastic. Can't wait to watch it!

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    1. Thanks man! Be interested to hear your thoughts on this one.

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  11. I thought this was a great piece of work as well! I was surprised by how quiet it was to be honest (even though I had heard it was pretty quiet, I didn't expect it to be THIS quiet). You could hear a pin drop in the audience I was with. I expected it to be great after hearing nothing but great things about it but was actually blown away by all three central performances. You are so right when you say that Ruffalo was the "star" here. I just remember thinking to myself how effortless he made his performance look. I think it played perfectly to his strengths but he upped his game to really fill Dave out into, as you said it, a REAL person.
    Carell and Tatum's performances are justly deserving of all the awards they're getting and being nominated for. I totally forgot I was watching Carell (and that ending with him in the car just left my jaw on the floor), hopefully he gets more roles that push him to this kind of intensity. I have to say that I've never shared your affinity for Tatum in the past but have grown to like him more and more with every role showing a new and broader range than I actually thought he would have and this is definitely the top so far. I think it's so interesting to watch interviews with the cast and you can just see how intense the film was on him by how quiet and serious he talks about it (in comparison to the rest of the cast anyway). Great review sir, as always!

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    1. Thanks buddy! I've had a lot of fun watching interviews with the Foxcatcher gang as well. Tatum is always quick to remark how horrible filming this movie was, and I just love that honesty. And Carell seems so eager to deflect any praise toward him, and give it to his co-stars, which is really admirable. I also find Bennett Miller to be a very unique man. He hates talking about himself, which I think is always interesting.

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  12. For whatever reason, perhaps the slow pacing, I just couldn't get into this film. The actor was tremendous though, and your praise for Ruffalo is spot-on--very subtle yet commanding. Great review!

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    1. It wasn't as "exciting" as I thought it was going to be, so I get where you're coming from. But once I settled into the pace, I really dug it. Thanks so much for the comment!

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  13. Glad to hear the cast is as good as advertised. I can't wait to see this, but I'm starting to wonder about its Oscar chances. Best Actor is so crowded that I could see Carell barely missing the cut, with maybe only Ruffalo and the makeup being recognized.

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    1. I'm getting nervous about Best Actor, only because I didn't dig The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. I'd love for Carell (or especially Keaton) to emerge the frontrunner. Simmons is still my pick for Supporting Actor, but Ruffalo is right behind him.

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  14. Great review here, Alex! Definitely one of the movies on my list to see at some point. I've heard such great things about all the actors, but it's especially nice to read a review that praises Ruffalo. It seems like he's often over-looked or forgotten.

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    1. Thanks Kristin! Ruffalo is really a stunner here. I can understand why some reviews aren't calling out his work though. If you see this movie then write your review that same day, Tatum and Carell's more showier performances are likely to stick out in your mind. Ruffalo is far more subtle here. So good.

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  15. A shity year for blockbuster:
    Transformers: Age of Extinction: Hate ALL Transformers films and Michael Bay. This is the worst of Transformers films?
    Maleficent: No one likes a live action animated film;
    X-Men: Days of Future Past: I just don't like Xmen, but what do you think about this one;
    The Amazing Spider-Man 2: I don't like Spider-man, but I like The Amazing Spider-Man. This on I hate;
    Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1: Okey, if you want to cut a book in two films you will make two times more money, but Part I will be always worse or not as good as Part II;
    Godzilla: This film should had work, but it's jus a waste of time and money;
    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Very bad film, but the Mutants were acually funny.
    What other blockbusters you didn't like (or like) this year?

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    1. The only blockbuster I really liked this year was Interstellar. Blockbusters, by and large, do nothing for me. I was stunned at the praise for Days of Future Past, that movie made no damn sense to me, and was just flat out boring.

      I also didn't mind Edge of Tomorrow. I thought that was pretty decent.

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    2. Guardians of the Galaxy was...decent. The film isn't like good, but I love it. Very funny. It have the best quotes of the year. "I am Groot" & "...a bunch of jackasses standing in a circle"

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    3. I didn't see it. Maybe someday.

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    4. You know, you should see it. For a super hero film this is like The Avengers. Isn't as emotional as Unbreakable or as smart and cool as The Dark Knight, but this film is very funny. I swear. I recommend to you to see Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe you will dislike it, maybe not. I just say I went two times at cinema to this film. Never happened before.

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    5. I have been curious, I admit. I should rent it soon.

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    6. Tell me when do you see it and what did you think about it.

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    7. Still haven't had a chance, but I definitely will in the next week.

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    8. I thought it was perfectly fine for what it was. I liked it a lot more than most super hero movies, certainly. One major fault: most all of the songs they used have been used FAR better in other movies. But oh well.

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    9. Exactly but, you know, I have Awesome Mix Vol.1, and I love to listen it all the time. The songs used are a way to show more about the characters. From me a solid B+.

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    10. I think a B+ is totally fair. I'd probably go with a B. I really did enjoy it more than I thought I would.

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  16. A great year for indie filcks. What I like: Frank, The Rover, Boyhood, John Wick, The Imitation Game, The Skeleton Twins, Chef, Calvary, Chef, Obvious Child, Joe, A Most Wanted Man, The Raid 2: Berandal, Snowpiercer, Foxcatcher, Starred Up, Like Father, Like Son, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, Force Majeure and Ernest and Celestine. Ones that I really loved: Nightcrawler, Ida, Enemy, Life Itself, Birdman, Gone Girl, Whiplash, Under the Skin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive and The Wind Rises.
    Note: A friend of Robert Budai, he recommended your site.
    Question: If you don't like LotR, why your blog is named after a quote from LotR?

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. That was nice of Robert to recommend the site. I chuckled out your last question, only because I've been asked that a lot. I've actually been saying, "and so it begins" since I was a little kid, long before LotR was ever released. The meaning of "And So it Begins," for me, is that every time I sit down for a movie, I'm hoping to be taken away. "And So it Begins" describes that initial step in the journey. The fact that it appears in a Lord of the Rings movie is complete coincidence.

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  17. This is one of those films that makes me proud of being a movies lover. I was blown away by the masterpiece Bennett Miller delivered and his view on the American Dream is pure brilliance.

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    1. Great man, so glad you liked it. I can't wait to see it again actually.

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    2. Fuck yeah, man, me too. It's the kind of film that really demands repeated viewings and grows on you. And I'm right there with you, Ruffalo steals the whole show. So good.

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    3. Definitely man. Might see it sometime this week!

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  18. I love your review. This film is so cold and clinical, but that was extremely interesting to me. Most movies try to warm you up even if the subject matter is dark, but Foxcatcher never did that. It was pretty brutal and I loved the slow burn of the film. I agree with you about all three performances as well. Ruffalo completely made 2 of my favorite scenes - the interview for the documentary and Mark's binge eating/binge loss (which Tatum was also excellent in). I get why people are having trouble connecting with this, what I think is impressive is that seems like the Miller's intention.

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    1. Thanks Jess! Seems like we're right in line on this one. In fact, I actually like the movie even more, having let it sit for a few weeks. It's just so goddamn bleak. Really unique film.

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  19. Saw this film yesterday. While it was pretty slow, I was able to overlook it thanks to the direction and brilliant trio of actors. What made the performances so great is how even though they are playing real life people, the actors still managed to make them fully-dimensional characters. All of them are worthy of Oscar consideration.

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    1. Absolutely man, so glad you liked their work. They were all in top form here. I mean, really stunning stuff all around. Be very interested to see they shape up come awards time.

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  20. Thank you for really making a point of recognizing Ruffalo's superb abilities. I think it is because of his subtlety that throughout his career he has never really been given the credit he deserves for his talent.

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    1. Thanks so much for commenting/reading! Ruffalo's subtlety is always what I've been drawn to most about him. Such a compassionate performer.

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