Films about white males living in a fantasy world are just about one of the most unoriginal and over-used dramatic structures around; that doesn’t mean they can’t be brilliant or interesting films, it’s just that we appear to be stuck inside of an obsessively male and delusional-culture mindset. This will come as a surprise to very few people (probably only to the aforementioned group of males). There are presently such an over-abundance of films that inhabit these fantasy worlds. There is no single reason why, just as there is no single way to engage with these fantasies. Examples currently in cinemas approach the topic with either total dedication (American Sniper), questioning exuberance (Birdman) or fascinated perplexity (Foxcatcher), being the three most prominent examples right now. These three films tend towards the destructive and the depressed.
This is just one facet of what could be judged as a larger overarching trend of films about those singular individuals who shape their own reality with force and/or passion, and those who shape the reality of whole societies. This interest in transformative individuals can represent in a variety of sociocultural spheres: art-forms (Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Finding Vivian Maier – *points!* female example! *cough cough* of a female who wanted nothing to do with the greater world), science-forms (Interstellar, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything), or social-forms (Gone Girl, Pride, Whiplash – social variation indicates greater flexibility in gender power, or rather, a greater possibility for subversion). There is a lot of overlap between these spheres, with few films simply falling into one or the other (I include Whiplash as social as I believe its focus to be more upon social institutions such as education and family than upon art, but that is a different debate). Sometimes these films present the glory of transformative intent as no more than a façade waiting to crumble. Foxcatcher is one such film.
Foxcatcher begins in a school, an institution designed to shape reality and the mind and bodies of its youthful inhabitants. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is presenting a talk on being an Olympic Gold medalist. He is not very good at it; the only thing he is shaping is the slackness of the bored youth’s expressions. We quickly learn that Mark’s brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), was actually meant to host. Mark’s life is presented as heartbreakingly lonely and empty. However, he has sporting prowess; he has honed his body to the highest level, and he has seemingly reached these heights of his own accord. Oh, except for that brother, David, whom he loves dearly but you can see the jealousy slowly simmering and building throughout the film. David has a gold medal, but so does his brother. Mark believes his brother helped him win it; he does not believe that he helped David win his. There is a disjuncture, in their perceptions of themselves and in the dreams that guide their decisions.
Mark’s opposite is John du Pont (Steve Carell), a millionaire from a family line that has long been associated with American exceptionalism. He is self-described as a “philanthropist, philatelist, ornithologist”, which places him (at least in his own mind) within all three spheres discussed earlier: social, artistic, and scientific. He wants to be remembered, to leave his fingerprints upon the world. John talks of Patriotism – with a capital P and stand up straight when you say it – until the word had no meaning, drawing attention to what a small-minded word it is. This is a man who dreams with a flourish to draw attention, yet understands the flourish more than he understands the desire that drives the dream. Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) never presents du Pont as someone whose success is based upon personal skill or prowess. The hollowness of his victories is reflected in the hollowness of his eyes, empty of the passion that flames the sportsmen with whom he surrounds himself. The fantasy world that John inhabits is built upon old money and enshrined in a tomb-like home; it has nothing to do with the real world of ticking clocks and achievement through endurance.
Both men stand in the shadow of a loved one, and despite their best efforts, deep down they do not feel that they are truly shaping their own reality. John du Pont has a Mother, another capitalised word, a ripely Freudian Mother, as abject and controlling and yet as silently watching and judging as Norma Bates hovering over another old house filled with trophies of dead things and conquered beasts. That tells you most of what you need to know about Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), a woman who looks more at home with her thoroughbred horses than with her own son. There is something of the The Most Dangerous Game in John’s collecting of wrestling males set against the backdrop of the stables. Dear Mother, well, she doesn’t understand that horses are stupid, and that man makes for a greater conquest. A horse cannot stand in front of your peers and read a pre-prepared speech that takes self-aggrandising to new levels of grotesque, holding up a false mirror that gives an impression of superiority. It is a wretched glory, but those with small imaginations will settle for what they can reach.
Miller’s casting is impressive. Leaving aside the physical likeness that many of the actors share with the real-life counterparts, these roles fit effortlessly within their body of work and they way in which they are perceived by audiences (yes, even Carell). Ruffalo as David is allowed to be the loveable yet complex father figure that he does so well; he has a sparkle in his eyes that communicates an empathic and expressive energy that has brought him great happiness, in his career and his family life. He works well with others and when he communicates, either through his body or his words, he clearly wants to know what the other person has to say in response. A beautiful early scene details Mark and David training together and clearly shows that they love each other, despite the difficulties and sometime tensions of a hard-earned life.
Tatum is the troubled hero, playing a familiar archetype as the lost soul with heart to burn, and he does that oh so very well. He is perhaps the stand-out performance here as it does require more of him than most of his roles have thus far. However, the sudden appearance of frosted tips during the downward spiral are lazy shorthand, though they act as an intriguing mirror to Carell’s artificial features. Carell as the villain of the piece is perhaps least well served by the film, being reduced in ways that don’t give him much room to explore the grey areas of his troubled character. Even the untroubled ease in describing him as the villain is disappointing. This du Pont could have appeared in an Anchorman film with no alterations and Carell would have nailed the creepy weirdo there as well as he does here. Viewing through the lens of ‘Oscar bait cinema’ makes the casting appear a little lazy and too easy, with everyone playing to the strengths but giving the appearance of doing something different. However, for audience identification is simplifies our ability to integrate with these difficult, largely silent men, and that is not something to be easily dismissed.
While Miller’s characters attempt to build themselves up within their respective social spheres, the film focuses instead on a form of reductionism, of stripping away traditional details in narrative and dialogue. In an interview with Sight and Sound, Bennett Miller states: “The film is what happens beneath the surface. Every aspect of the film is attempting to sensitise you to what’s not being expressed in this world of fragile male egos that have problems with communication, people who don’t really express themselves”, a problem which he describes as an “American theme”. Expression instead comes through incremental details spread throughout the surrounding environment. A melancholic fog surrounds the estate; deployed in a beautifully evocative scene in which John chases the horses of his recently departed mother from the stables and into the fog, as if forcefully shoving her into the mists of time. The past and the fog are one, laying heavily upon everything the du Pont’s care about. In Foxcatcher, unlike so many current biopics, nostalgia is death. The house is a mausoleum to past glories, a prison to be trapped in.
Miller has a classicist’s sense of cinema, weaving a narrative of thematic richness from all the tools at his disposal. Exquisite cinematography, editing, performance, production design, etc., are all deployed with a confidence that assures the audience that Miller will continue to be a director to watch. For the unforgiving members of the audience this might be a little on the nose. One can sense him forcing the movements of the film. For a film in which so much is subtly communicated through mise-en-scene, it is somewhat surprising that there are so many painfully unsubtle elements and ideas that are never incorporated artfully into the mix. Miller speaks through Foxcatcher – on themes of patriotism, class, masculinity – with a quiet voice, but he keeps the big stick close by. Whether it’s the least subtle pay-off in recent Oscar-Grade cinema (“get it, he has money, the money works FOR him, get it?!”) or the laziness with which Carell is deployed to generate unease through his comedy of discomfort, these bum notes often make the film feel haphazard and less concerned with digging deeply into those “American themes” than it suggests. There are layers of meaning, and they are ripe for discussion and analysis, but for those not in the mood this may well turn them off very quickly.
Related to this problem, the performances are of a variety that feel heavily indebted to the control of the director, and thus never quite get the chance to breathe. The story belongs to Mark Schultz and John du Pont, a mismatched duo whose developing relationship is the beating heart of the film. As the focus shifts from these two the film begins to unravel, and never quite recovers as it stumbles into its grim ending. However, on a thematic level, this works for the film in an odd way. Mark and John have become overly reliant upon the techniques of survival and advancement that their respective situations have encouraged. The film revolves around an inability to resolve their internal conflicts, to bring together their subtle strengths and unsubtle weaknesses, and unify into a yin and yang that complement each other. It is here that one starts to see the attraction for Miller in the mutually destructive tale of a millionaire and a wrestler, two men from opposite ends of the class spectrum. Instinctively these men recognise in each other the damage wrought by training at the expense of human experience, they see how the other can smooth over the holes in their own being. The tragedy is their failure to halt their individual downward spirals.
Miller’s inability to completely unify his vision does not necessarily impede the power of the film. It is, after all, a film about the failure of unity. Even Carell’s horribly artificial nose and contrived characterisation communicate meaning. Perhaps ‘inability’ is the wrong word, perhaps Miller intended all along to let these unsubtle elements stand, to let them communicate a blatant stupidity and allow the discord they generate in such an artful film to speak in a way that words cannot. As characters bash their head against the metaphoric wall, so does the film – a disjunctive psychosis bleeding into everything. All these white men dreaming with their eyes wide shut, communicating the deeper rifts that exist in a nation such as America, in which powerful, skilled people fail to come together as a society. Another ‘American theme’, the power of disunity to destroy every dream you ever had.
By Ben Buckingham
Foxcatcher is now showing in Australia