Movie a Day Blog constantly surprises ourselves by the films we neglected to write about when we first saw them. The latest, and a significant Academy Awards contender, is FOXCATCHER (2014, Theatrical), Bennett Miller’s meditative essay on money, power and sex, all among men.
Miller is almost 50 but has only directed four feature films, including FOXCATCHER. With these, however, he has directed six actors to Oscar nominations, including Steve Carrel and Mark Ruffalo for FOXCATCHER. He has also nabbed two Best Director nominations, also for FOXCATCHER and CAPOTE (2005). His other outstanding film is MONEYBALL (2011), so in terms of intelligent filmmaking and positive critical reception, Miller is batting 1,000.
A Miller film only comes along every three to five years, so there was great anticipation for FOXCATCHER, and it largely lives up to its advance billing, once again especially strong in the area of performance.
Carrell plays a multimillionaire wrestling fan who has gross and unexamined feelings of attraction to his young charges, and Ruffalo is the older wrestler who gets caught in Carrell’s web, as does his younger sibling, played by Channing Tatum.
For me, the biggest surprise was Tatum, who in my estimation deserved a nominationmore than did Carrell or Ruffalo. His construct of an inarticulate, wholly physical young man unable to communicate with anything other than his body was deep and penetrating, and makes FOXCATCHER particularly compelling watching.
The story is a true one, as super-wealthy John E. du Pont set up a training academy for U.S. wrestlers in anticipation of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Carrell, sporting a prosthetic nose that distracts from every scene he’s in, recruits the gold medal-winning tandem of Mark (Tatum) and Dave (Ruffalo) Schultz to lead the team and provide Carrell with an infinite amount of fantasy material about virile young man grappling with each other in long underwear.
In one memorably creepy scene, set in Carrell’s egotistical trophy room, he physically body surfs over the group of young men horsing around and grabbing at each other. It made me want to take a shower.
Carrell has a smorgasbord of hang-ups, the principal one being his disappointed mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who fears she might have nourished a monster at her breast (figuratively speaking, of course!). Redgrave has only two scenes in FOXCATCHER, and in one of them she doesn’t even speak, but the final look she bestows on Carrell is somewhere between disdain and loathing, and we can see its impact on him and his neuroses.
Miller adopts a deliberate pace, and never uses the neon flashing lights that point to “important” scenes in movies such as THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014, Movie a Day 1/19/15). His style is unobtrusive, rarely visually flashy and relies on what the actors bring to the moment, as much as the script or the direction.
FOXCATCHER will not be everyone’s cup of tea; Miller is not looking to make an audience picture out of this sordid tale that ends in tragedy, although the facts would have certainly permitted him to. Instead, he thinks aloud, with his camera, his actors, their dialogue and the story they’re telling, about what makes people act the way they do, and what are the consequences of their actions.
It’s not easy to contemplate with equanimity the decisions the major characters in FOXCATCHER make, but that produces a film all the more bolder and ambitious. Miller dares us to imagine ourselves as people we might never want to know otherwise, and that’s what great movies do.