Back in 2004 a film directed by Gavin O’Conner called “Miracle” was released into theatres. The film was a celebration of the human triumph; where a coach drove his team to be the best in the 1980 Olympics Hockey games to absolute joyous result. If that is what “Miracle” is, then “Foxcatcher” is the antithesis of that. Here again we have a film about a coach driving his team (this time a particular player) to be their best in the 1988 Olympics but instead of “Miracle’s” joyous results we have tragic ones. “Foxcatcher” is a look into the human psyche to see just how far a human can pushed; with breath taking direction by director Bennett Miler and Oscar caliber acting; anchored by a haunting, and chilling performance by Steve Carell.
“Foxcatcher” follows the story of Mark Schulz in his desire to become the best wrestler in the world. He joins with John Du Point as he sponsors a potential Olympic wrestling team. John pushes Mark to his breaking point and the union between them leads to darker and more unsettling areas of life.
Bennett Miller of “Capote” and “Moneyball” fame directs this feature with a cool steady hand. He fills the screen with muted colors and an almost horror like atmosphere. From the first frame Miller is able to evoke chilling feelings from the audience and maybe on a conscious level you’re not even sure why. But, Miller makes the audience feel uncomfortable, dirty, and is able to give across the feeling that what they are watching isn’t natural. When a director can achieve such provocation out of an audience and us not understanding why, that is an achievement in on itself.
Miller gives this movie a very deliberate and slow pace. Unlike “Moneyball”, which wasn’t necessarily a fast pace movie but it certainly moved at a way that kept the action flowing. “Foxcatcher” feels dead, moving like a zombie without legs. It’s a slow burn, building everything up carefully; establishing relationships, bringing the drama in, introducing characters until the unforgettable finale. If you know the history behind the actual true to life events, then the ending won’t come as a shock but still provokes unrest in your stomach and a knot in your throat regardless if you know the ending or not.
What struck me upon initial viewing is how stationary the camera can be. In this day and age, we’re very use to seeing large amounts of movement from our pictures. Instead though Miller seems to keep things more confined and little movement at all. Some of this approached reminded me of some techniques Stanley Kubrick employed in some of his physiological pictures like “2001” or “The Shinning” (which are also horror and sci-fi but have a strong foothold in physiological). Not saying there isn’t movement at all, just limited amount, many wide angled shots and when there is movement behind the camera it’s clean and very rarely does the camera get violent (in the moment it does it’s a visual representation for the character). A similar style, it reminded me of was Yimou Zhang’s in his masterwork “Raise the Red Lantern”.
One of Miller’s greatest gifts however is his ability to work with actors. You saw it in “Capote” with Philip Seymour Hoffman (which landed him an Oscar) and in “Moneyball”; where both Brad Pitt and Johan Hill got nominated for Oscars. Here in “Foxcatcher”, his work with actors is even more impressive. Three of the main actors are Oscar worthy (a phase I think we’re all guilty of throwing around too much), the first here being Channing Tatum.
For a while he was no doubt a joke around Hollywood, “Dear John”, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”, “The Eagle”, were all far from critical or audience praise. Not just the films, but Tatum wasn’t that great in any of them but here and there he has shown hints of potential. From my understanding he had worked hard to get better as an actor behind the scenes and “Foxcatcher” is the culmination of that hard work. Tatum gets inside the head of a man that isn’t all there in his head. Driven by determination, his character Mark Schulz wants to get out of his older brother’s shadow and is willing to do anything to do that. Like Tom Hardy’s performance in “The Drop” earlier this year, Tatum tells everything he needs to with his eyes. A performance where his facial expressions tells about most of the pain his character is going through.
His opposite is the success story in Dave Schulz, his older brother, played by Mark Ruffalo. While Mark is quiet, stoic, very much keeps to himself and lives alone, Dave is the opposite. He is caring, loving full of life and personality and a devoted family member. Ruffalo comes across as the every man, and whole heartedly feels like your friendly next door neighbor. As an audience member he is the one you gravitate to the most because he is the most likeable. The competition might be a bit too stiff this year at the Oscar season but Ruffalo might be able to sneak in with an Oscar nomination.
Mark wanting to get out of his brother’s shadow gravitates to someone else, John Du Point, played Steve Carell. When people think of Robin Williams they think of a man that is equally great comedic and dramatic. Originally though he was a comedic actor and started to make a shift in “Good Morning Vietnam”. When having a conversation about a year or two ago with friends the question was asked who now could be like Robin Williams, amazing comedic actor but turn dramatic? My answer was Steve Carell, I felt he had the acting chops to pull off a dramatic role, but I didn’t know he would be this good.
Steve Carell sinks so far into the role that behind the makeup and performance you forget that this is Carrel and instead just a man on the edge, never sure what to think about him. At first he seems harmless but soon you realize the creepiness and the madness that may be behind this man’s eyes and Carrell captures all of that. When he delivers dialogue it feels natural but sometimes he let out a little extra long breath between his sentences that sends chills down your spine. There are many great performances this year but for me, Carell is an easy front runner to win it all, Carell is that damn good.
Miller gave us THE modern day baseball movie in “Moneyball” but he once again defines quality and blew me away with “Foxcatcher.” Sadly I don’t see his name being thrown around as much as a David O’ Russell. Miller continues to show why he is as the top of his game and one of the best working directors right now. “Foxcatcher” is unnerving and maybe too slow pace for some but this is a masterwork and shows the greatness that American films are capable of being.