Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)- Bennett Miller’s Atmospheric and Understated Thriller Showcases Refined Performances but Misses the Mark in Thematic Relevance

FOXCATCHERThe elusive concept of the American Dream has become a sort of repetitive target for the realm of cinema mostly because, like all ideals, there are cracks to be exposed and tragedies that showcase its failures either in focusing on the inability to achieve its benefits or focusing on those who abuse its possibilities. Ever since Erich Von Stroheim’s infamous American nightmare portrait Greed there have been numerous onslaughts against the heartbreaking failings and morally corrupt exploitations of the American ideal, including a great number of quality reflections from the early classic days of cinema with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane to modern day retellings such as David Fincher’s The Social Network. Though it has become a sort of exhausted trope there is definitely merit to these self-remorseful moral parables that seek to denigrate what they see as an ethical abyss behind success, old money, and class division that inevitably leads to detachment, vanity, or an implosion of childlike resistance when they are refused to have the ultimate intended power of control. Following this same theme is Bennett Miller’s latest film Foxcatcher, an atmospheric, understated, yet insubstantial true crime drama that seeks to use one man’s emotional instability as the subtext to our current societal and economic ills. It seems almost counterproductive to lament on the faults of a film such as Foxcatcher because it seems to be the sort of film we’re in short supply of: an adult drama with a heightened sense of handsome technique, exceptional performances from more than one lead, and a minimal attempt at bridging dramatic circumstances into a theoretical contemplation. However, Miller’s symbolic indictment of socially isolated greed only touches the surface of its intended target as its shallow character study proves less than insightful resulting in a self-righteous condemnation that doesn’t have the weight of substance behind it. Though Foxcatcher’s exponential buildup of tension and uniquely expressionistic style of acting allows for some fascinating dramatic moments it doesn’t sustain its cynical intrigue as its flimsy foundation of simplistic character pathos and aimless criticism of America eventually fall flat leaving an unsatisfying sense of dramatic emptiness.

Bennett Miller’s films may vary in their screenwriting source, but it seems he’s drawn to material that share a similar theme, mainly the ambiguous power relationships that are at the center of predominately American institutions and a based on real life lonely outsider as the guiding protagonist. Truman Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) represented the involving influence of American literature; Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) represented the underdog efforts in America’s great pastime baseball; and now Steve Carell as John Eleuthère du Pont has the daunting task of representing the drastic disparities within American business. Written with factual leniency and dramatic cheats by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher attempts to retell the strange protégé-benefactor relationship between Olympic Gold Medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and the aforementioned Du Pont, the Heir to one of America’s greatest fortunes made on death (war munitions and chemical manufacturing). Their relationship is based on Mark’s ambition to exit the shadow of his equally talented older brother David (Mark Ruffalo) and Du Pont’s patriotic aim to create a champion based athletic facility to train for the Seoul Olympics in 88’ rivaling the financial support that the Soviet Union gives their athletes. Unfortunately Frye and Futterman’s script only works at best as an unsettling anthropological thriller that never enters the realm of true character insight as sparse dialogue and minimalist onscreen events never contribute to any fulfilling thematic analysis. Even their pronounced intention to explore Du Pont’s particular character pathology as a symbolic figurehead results in shallow examination as the overall theme becomes quite overt in how he longs for his mother’s acceptance and affection resulting in resentment stemmed from childhood inadequacies. There’s nothing wrong with condensing or suppressing the facts, such as ignoring Du Pont’s passion for other sports and mocking his academic achievements in ornithology, but in doing so the script reveals itself as a dramatic cheat where the desired outcome of presenting the rich as a self-financing inbred freak show loses its thematic weight under its insubstantial presentation of events.


However, what Foxcatcher lacks in thematic resonance it makes up for in completely gripping expressionism that finds its unsettling atmosphere in the nuance of character, the perpetual buildup of tension, and the alluring attribute of moody undertones. Miller’s masterful sense of direction finds a confident mixture of Capote’s true-crime melodrama with Moneyball’s meticulous technical pacing to give Foxcatcher that unnerving sense of foreboding that at its best moments resembles the calculating early French thrillers from the likes of Henri-Georges Clouzot, Claude Chabrol, and Jean Cocteau. Miller follows the example of these filmmakers in utilizing character subtlety and minimalist action where cinematic craft becomes a leading tool in creating lasting discomfort. Foxcatcher adopts simplicity and high-wire technical daring almost to a fault creating a surface of understatement that allows explosive moments to become even more jarring and visceral, such as Tatum’s Mark exploding in a fit of frustration and smashing his head against a hotel mirror (the blood you see on screen is Tatum’s actual blood). Cinematographer Greig Fraser helps expose the frustrations under the surface and the subtleties between characters such as when he gracefully dances with Tatum’s Mark and Ruffalo’s David as they wrestle with pure physical expression or when he captures a silent yet judgmental reaction from Jean Du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave) towards her son. His dreary grayish visual tones are accompanied with Rob Simonsen’s creepy funereal score and on equal creepy measure the absence of score in carefully selected moments that invokes Miller’s intended sense of unease making Foxcatcher an undeniably gripping if inevitably empty experience. It’s disappointing that a film so well-constructed in its technical feats, atmospheric clarity, and dramatic confidence doesn’t have an equally convincing emotional reckoning in its third act demonstrating that the shell of an insightful film doesn’t always have the substance on the inside that makes it count. With a ponderously long running time of over two hours, Miller’s Foxcatcher never seems to justify its existence as to why this particular story should be told though the film fascinates in technique and performance long before that hollow realization settles in.

Probably the only justifiable reason for witnessing Bennett Miller’s latest character drama is the acting threat from three prominent performers who all see a thrilling turn from their usual type casted roles as they escape deep into the psychologies of their individual characters. At the transformative center of Foxcatcher is Steve Carell turning some outrageously done makeup into something that transcends the physical as his profoundly chilling demeanor and eerily convincing take on John Du Pont creates a portrait of a resentful man child. His slightly hunched physicality, astonishing as it is, gets trumped by his creepy emotionless gaze that expresses a societal detachment and perpetual dissatisfaction with the world never meeting his illustrious expectations. However, as good as Carell is as the centerpiece performance, there’s actually more substance to be found in both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as the Olympic Wrestling brothers Mark and David respectively. Tatum’s performance is one of delicate expressiveness as he creates a vulnerable portrayal of the monosyllabic Mark Schultz, a passionate and inarticulate patriot who desperately yearns for a father figure. This against-type turnaround for Tatum doesn’t depend on dramatic gimmickry allowing for a believable take on a simple-minded character swayed by platitude patriotism whose fits of rage shine a light on his emotional insecurity. On the opposite side of him is Mark Ruffalo’s startling departure from his usual suave, unconventional characters as David Schultz, who could be considered the representation of the model American man: a truly competitive, caring, and mild-mannered family man. The visage of Ruffalo as either easy going bohemian Paul in The Kids Are Alright or spontaneous record executive Dan in Begin Again are what usually comes to mind for the characters he plays and his exceptionally subtle take on David is what almost gives the film its poetic and fateful turn towards cynicism. Considering Miller has guided numerous actors to Academy Award nominee prestige, from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar win to Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s duel nominations, he makes a case that actors are his specialty and with Foxcatcher he makes it an undeniable fact.


Certainly the subject matter of Foxcatcher and the fateful occurrences of the Du Pont case are at their heart disturbing but what Bennett Miller’s film fails to do is make an insightful case that it’s a true representation of a darkened American Dream. It desperately wants to be a moral parable on the evils of money, the alienation it besets, and the heightened expectations that it brings when reality is far less forgiving without contributing substance to dramatically support it. From performance to technical atmosphere there’s loads happening on the surface of Foxcatcher, but as the events unfold in an almost detached callousness we realize the unsettling mood has a drastic overpromise towards thematic relevance and dramatic purpose unveiling emptiness underneath the complex layers. The film finds strength in the unknown nature of its true crime-drama where not knowing the end gives it some substantial surprise, but the end is the only dramatic reason it was chosen as a story to tell and not because of its overarching contemplative capabilities. Even on the level of venturing into the disturbed pathos of an alienated subject the film fails to give an authentic representation as factual accuracy gets replaced with broad characterization. With Bennett Miller being a director who has mastered technique and performance it’s disappointing that he couldn’t find material that finds equal footing in emotional pay-off as it does with being mystified by its polished presentation. Foxcatcher embodies all of the qualities we look for in our standard for quality films from adept direction to refined performances except in the most important expectation of giving us an emotional or thematic connection of purposeful existence.

Grade: C+

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