Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Foxcatcher


As time passes, my memory of certain films begins to cloud.  There are the impressions left by the work's visual qualities , that is, the mood a given film seems to want to evoke  -- and then there's this kinda separate thing: what it actually succeeds in doing.  Sometimes, with enough distance and repeat exposure to the right snippets or images, I start to wonder if my initial reaction was justified.  Foxcatcher is one such film: a beautiful work in some ways, a dreadfully dull thing in others.  Since watching it, I haven't been able to quite suss out whether my sense of it is one on the brink of change or if my opinion has simply been dulled from exposure to repeat praise.  To be up front, I'll tell you that my initial reaction was one of near total frustration. This was what I'd waited so long for? What I'd heard so much about?  I'd left the theater exhausted and so thoroughly bored that I'd immediately texted a handful of friends who might give a shit and told them I'd found the film to be among the biggest disappointments in recent memory.

I still feel this way, even as I admire much of what Foxcatcher sets out to do and the nuanced attention to detail it works through.  There are definite positive to the film: strong performances from its three primary cast-members, an eerie, muted aesthetic that adds to the creeping dread of the situation, and a brilliant eye for capturing human movement.  That last one is perhaps the thing I've heard most repeated in praise of the film - and it's warranted. What Foxcatcher gets really, really right (is the way its characters move through space and engage with one another.  The cinematography blends with the performances to allow us to understand how these particular bodies in charge the atmosphere of a room, and there are a number of interesting medium and long shots throughout that allow us to simply watch, say, the lumbering elegance of wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in his moves on and off the mat.  


Movement is largely how director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) defines relationships and personalities in Foxcatcher, and we learn  as much about Mark and his brother David (Mark Ruffalo) as they practice sparring as we do observing their postures in a room full of other people.  Mark is always a little closed off and rigid.  He's tight jawed, a bit humorless, and seemingly incapable of interacting with people in a way that would be considered "normal."  Davis, meanwhile, is a character immediately recognizable as a people person.  Something in his stance suggests that he's comfortable, welcoming - his athleticism is clear, but his edges are rounded off and we we're able to see the way he cares about whatever happens to be in front of him at any given moment.  The contrast between the brothers, though, is nothing compared to the unnatural presence of John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), whose stance at any given moment - as he peers down his oversized nose and puffs out his chest - is so labored, so rigidly off kilter, that he comes off as a type of Frankenstein.  du Pont's mere appearance is an uneasy one that splits every scene he's in so uncomfortably that at times it becomes difficult to behold.  To his credit, though the performance is both flashier and clunkier than Tatum and Ruffalo's, Carell lends du Pont such a queer gravitas that the film itself seems to give up on doing anything else narratively to build tension.  Instead, Miller turns toward a type of documentary naturalism and invites us to watch these strange animals in their unnatural habitats as we wait for the inevitable third act. 
It's not a spoiler to note that there's a moment of violence at the center of the story.  This is one of those "based on a true story" bits of filmmaking that has - as its basis - an odd jumble of nationalistic pride, delusion, ego, and abuse of privilege. Du Pont - one time heir to the du Pont fortune - famously shot and killed Olympic wrestler David Schultz after bringing him (and Mark) onto his training team at the family's Foxcatcher Farm estate.  The du Pont here is pulled from recorded footage and written accounts.  He claims to love wresting, to have long held a desire to be a wrestler (though it was frowned upon by his very traditional mother).  So he puts together a team because he can: he has the means to bring young, muscular athletes to live on his property.  He can buy glory, and even as he claims to want to build a winning team out of some selfless desire to "bring hope back to America," his real reasons seem more sinister, and his psychology is never clear.

What we wind up with, ultimately, is something as legitimately noble as it is frustrating.  Foxcatcher presents us with a whole lotta impressionistic movement, but very few actual events.  There are moments where what's being suggested is not especially clear, and where I worried I'd missed something or fallen asleep at a moment of truth.  As Mark's relationship with du Pont becomes troubled, Miller is at times so subtle about the instances leading to these emotional shifts that the film feels confused or somehow lacking in justification. There are gaps in its logic that ask us to fill in blanks or understand character motivations when everything is presented, essentially, in a fog.  While I can appreciate the way the film attempts to avoid the old Hollywood game of embellishing dramatic events in favor of raw entertainment, Foxcatcher seems to provide an argument against a sort of too-subtle subtlety.  For a film centered around a murder, there's really nothing that reads as a climax here.  Everything remains sort of flat, distant, and perhaps too interested in drawing presence as a type of suspense. Though this sounds interesting in theory, and is perhaps interesting in discussion -  it's not particularly engaging in practice. Many may relish the more meditative elements of what Miller's attempting here, and though there are certainly noteworthy successes within the film, on the whole it reads as a sort of overly clunky, rather forgettable monstrosity.  So many of its actual narrative moves simply don't feel earned on screen, and when you get right down to it you're left with a version of the same argument writers (of both creative non fiction and fiction proper) have been contending with for far too long: does it matter if it that's how it really happened if it doesn't serve the story?  Frankly, I don't think it does.

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