Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 09, 2014 6:24 am 
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A monotonous but memorable epic of crime among the rich

Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is a big, important, epically slow movie. And rather excruciating. It certainly makes an impression. Viewers may want to compare it to Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune. Both are films about murder in the claustrophobic world of the very rich. But Schroeder's film, of course, is a complicated mystery. In Foxcatcher, the stiff, deluded mommy's boy John E. Dupont played by Steve Carell simply plays his crazy mind games with poor Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), the champion wrestler he takes under his wing, and then becomes enraged at his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a wrestler and a coach, and shoots him to death with a pistol with an employee and Dave's wife (Sienna Miller) watching. In both films, though, one has the sense of greater danger because money insulates these people from reality and from a moral sense.

While Reversal of Fortune is drolly creepy and fascinating in its complexity and ambiguity, Foxcatcher is annoying and drags. It is repetitious. How do you make an interesting story about a neanderthal (Tatum's character) and a stiff madman (Carell's)? The film is well directed in that it gets the maximum effect out of these two characters and the setting. Their sick father-son relationship is deeply disturbing, wrong from the start. Both characters are wooden, but great use is made of their physicality. It seems the decision was made that because John Dupont was an ornithologist, he should be given a beak like a bird: hence the big artificial nose, which stands out a mile and makes the usually comic Carell's unaccustomed dark and serious role seem like a stunt. He speaks in a slow, stifled voice, seeming to mimic the accents of the Kennedys. His body is stiff; he looks into space, his face (and beak) held aloft. It's an imploded performance. Tatum's hulking body certainly convinces us he could be a wrestler, and Mark's vulnerability gradually emerges as pitiful. We're in the realm of Of Mice and Men. (His trajectory is left a bit up in the air.)

Mark's mistake in coming to Dupont's estate to train for the USA tournament and the Seoul Olympics, Dupont's fake wrestling expertise, his rigid notions of training and patriotism, are oppressive elements that weigh powerfully on the viewer. It's heavy-handed, and each point, each scene, runs quite a bit too long: half an hour could easily have been cut to make a sharper, more energetic film. Nonetheless it does work, beating viewers over the head with its significance till they begin to surrender.

If we go from Capote (NYFF 2005) to Moneyball to Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller's films have grown in complexity and viewer involvement, going from just interesting; to thoroughly engaging; to provocative and disturbing. (Whether he has grown equally as a director is another question.) Capote is just a character study: even though Hoffman's performance is a technical marvel the film is a little bit by-the-numbers. Moneyball is a suave and entertaining process film, highlighted by Brad Pitt's relaxed turn and the wit Aaron Sorkin may have added in. Now Miller has turned to this oddball, ugly piece of American history with its many implications. Foxcatcher touches on warped notions of dynasty, jingism and American exceptionalism, megalomania, absent parents and oppressively present ones who won't go away even when the child is in his forties or fifties. Even America's excessive presence of firearms raises its head most visibly: the Duponts, we learn, originally owed their original fortune to explosives. In telling his story, Miller uses all the physical trappings, the peculiar look of Carell, the hulk of Tatum -- and Ruffalo's more flexible and skillful but less heralded and thankless depiction of a wrestler who's also an actual human being. Outwardly, there's the grand house and horse farm estate in Pennsylvania, the training facilities, the private planes and helicopters. These aren't particularly used with subtlety (again, compare Schroeder). They're effective, like everything else. Dupont's craziness seems much the same at the end as at the beginning. Carell doesn't give us character development, if the screenplay even allows for it. But what does it matter? Foxcatcher is a movie you wish you could get out of your head, but you can't.

One wonders if this effect is justified by any profundity in Miller as a filmmaker, though, any resonance beyond his reliance on "real events." Mike D'Angelo wrote from Cannes in The Dissolve that "his films suffer from a failure of imagination, skimming lightly (but often self-importantly) over the surface of the verifiable." With Foxcatcher, it's beginning to look even more that way.

It's somewhat disheartening, therefore, that Variety called Foxcatcher "perhaps the sole credible awards-season heavyweight to have emerged from this year’s Cannes Film Festival." If this is really true, then maybe help can come from abroad. Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, for instance, is a lovely and nuanced picture, and grand in its own way.

Foxcatcher, 135 mins., debuted at Cannes, showing around the festival circuit, including Telluride, Toronto, Vancouver and London, and was screened for this review as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival. It has already acquired a host of raves, with some dissenters. It opens in the US 14 November (21 November in San Francisco and Northern California),and in the UK and France 9 and 21 January, respectively.

David Edelstein captures this film's one-note oppressiveness in his New York Magazine review.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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