Mister Cinecal

Mister Cinecal

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Catching Z's With Foxcatcher

Part of the problem with Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is that it spends its time building to an event that may have nothing to do with the previous two hours. The true-crime tragedy that is the film's climax did not have a neat explanation in real life, seemingly coming out of nowhere, attributed to mental illness in John Du Pont, and taking place years after the events depicted in this film posited as motivation. I wanted to give the film a chance but it ultimately took a very long time to say very little about Du Pont. It was like a PowerPoint presentation that ended with a picture of a gun.

Foxcatcher mostly focuses its attention not on Du Pont but on Mark Schultz, one of the wrestlers who trained at the Foxcatcher training facility on the grounds of Du Pont's estate. Mark is an Olympic gold medalist but feels inadequate; he's very close to his brother Dave but feels overshadowed by him, Dave is a more talented wrestler, has a family life and is much more comfortable in his own skin than Mark, who is the embodiment of whatever a 'lug' is supposed to be. When Du Pont becomes his financier they become unlikely friends, as Du Pont has his own feelings of inadequacy; he's a do-nothing millionaire trying to convince himself that he's a great wrestling coach, great father figure and great American patriot all in order to live up to his family's "dynasty" (Were the achievements in ornithology not enough John?) Things go well until they don't and Mark and John's relationship sours, all to the tune of some capital A Acting.

Steve Carrell has received a lot of praise for his performance as Du Pont but it never really feels as if there's much depth to his performance. He's get across his character's neediness and stuntedness but these are the same notes being hit in nearly every scene and it gets tiresome after a while. There are times, for example when Du Pont spouts platitudes and wrestling basics to his bewildered charges because his mother is watching, that he too closely recalls Michael Scott from The Office, which doesn't really help Carrell's attempt to distinguish himself as a dramatic actor. 'Charisma' is the wrong thing to be asking for from this character but it doesn't really come across convincingly that Mark Schultz would feel drawn to and then rejected by this weirdo. The Schultz brothers honestly overshadow him; Channing Tatum as Mark is similarly one-note but Tatum seethes resentment more compellingly, while Mark Ruffalo as Dave gives the most authentic performance. His concern for his brother really comes across genuinely but so does his obliviousness to overshadowing him. And while the other two act passive-agressively with the loudness of people who really want you to know they're being passive-aggressive, Dave clearly balks at and challenges Du Pont's self-importance without ever raising his voice. Ruffalo is good, but for a film with clear aspirations of acting awards there are no "must see" performances.

It's all a bit dour watching Foxcatcher to be honest. It's a slow film that perhaps could have trimmed a few minutes, particularly in the beginning. Scenes play out with long periods of silence, appropriate for the awkwardness of John and Mark but frustrating when you're waiting for something to happen and know the big blow-out is still many minutes away. The camera is mostly a still observer, always holding back with the possible exception of the wrestling scenes. The silence and the safe and static look of the film contribute to it's slow, empty feeling. Channing Tatum trashes a room, because that is what unhappy people in serious films do. Even in his 'living in excess' times, snorting cocaine and sporting frosted tips, he and John lack even a facade of happiness. They are pathetic on the surface and on the one layer deeper the film can go. Michael Scott  John Du Pont's mother paid someone to be his friend as a child. It's pretty miserable. The film is even shot dull and grey, like watching a rainy Sunday on a screen.

It's a shame, I felt guilty for feeling bored in the early going, cursing my own attention span, wanting to like a film for being less flashy and more cerebral, but Foxcatcher isn't cerebral. It offers a straightforward Hollywood A to B explanation for a real life event and never gets beyond a baseline examination of its characters. After making an effort for the (admittedly better) 2nd act, as the film drew to a close I found myself bored again. And then the events that make these people noteworthy happen, without much set-up, the film's own argument poorly made. We never even see one of our main characters react to it. Though others may have enjoyed it, for me Foxcatcher failed at what it was trying to do, offering a half-hearted motivation for a tragedy with a depressed shrug.

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