Combustible Celluloid
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With: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III
Written by: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Directed by: Bennett Miller
MPAA Rating: R for some drug use and a scene of violence
Running Time: 134
Date: 11/21/2014

Foxcatcher (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wrestling with Inner Demons

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Cinema has always been viewed as a lesser, a vulgar art form. In the early days, actors didn't even take credit because they feared it would tarnish their reputation on the legitimate stage. That stigma lasts up to today, and so narrowminded filmmakers and tastemakers assume that, since cinema has no inherent value outside of spectacle, it must be shaped to look like something more profound, i.e. an important novel, play, or -- more common these days -- a "true story."

I like to joke that you can tell the summer has turned into fall because movies are no longer based on comic books and are now based on true stories. They come in the fall simply because "true story" movies win Oscars. When filmmakers make, and when critics view, a "true story" movie, they feel pressure to give it heavier consideration. There's a certain reverence. Efforts are made to remain true to the "essence" of the real story. Eventually, what this means is that the inherent art of cinema, a personal vision, is sacrificed in exchange for someone else's vision. The result turns into a formula, a Cliff's Notes version of someone's life or experiences, hitting highlights, but with no true emotional understanding of just who these people are or were.

Which brings me to Bennett Miller's exceptional Foxcatcher, which is one of the rare examples of a filmmaker meeting his "true story" material head-on. Firstly, the material does not inspire reverence. It's a sad, sordid chapter of American sports history. It can give you the creeps. Secondly, Miller has chosen a way of filming that explores the spaces between the story. It makes no claims and draws no conclusions. It simply exists.

Channing Tatum stars as Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler who won a gold medal in the 1984 games. He lives in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who also won gold in the same games in a different weight class. Miller shows this disconnect in their relationship when Mark agrees to speak to a classroom full of kids, showing off his medal. He earns $20 for the job, but the clerk accidentally writes the check to Dave, and not Mark. He grabs a fast food burger, goes home, plays an electronic football game, and eats some ramen. He has no life.

When we first meet Dave, we're not introduced to him. He and Mark simply begin their day's training, wrestling in a grayish, unforgiving gym. Their match is full of routine moves, but also fresh emotions. Dave clearly loves Mark and shows it by encouraging him and training him. But Mark wants to be his own person. By the end of this physical encounter, we understand just who these men are.

Mark receives a phone call that the millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) wants to meet him. The du Pont family fortune began manufacturing ammunition during the war, and then led to chemicals. Du Pont's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) has a passion for horses (there are fox hunts on the estate), but John loves wrestling. And weapons. Essentially John wishes to start his own wrestling team with the intention of sending them to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Mark is his first acquisition. The movie is so subtle that I have heard different interpretations of this. Perhaps John has a homosexual attraction to Mark, but it's also possible that John is merely using Mark to get Dave into his stable.

For a while, John and Mark develop a kind of father-son relationship that both seem to desperately crave. John clearly has some mother issues, and Mark -- who was raised by Dave -- has his family issues as well. But John begins exhibiting odd behavior here and there, and eventually Mark becomes disenchanted with the whole operation. But by that time, Dave is on board and working at full speed.

Without giving much more away, the story takes a turn for the worse, but Miller isn't interested in any kind of suspense or plot twists. He films mainly in wide, sustained shots; very often an entire room is on view, highlighting how out-of-place the characters seem in their own environments, in their own lives. Occasionally, he goes to a tight close-up, as when Mark frantically attempts to lose weight before an important match (he lost it and went on an eating binge), riding a stationary bike and sweating into his hoodie. There are few, if any, mid-range shots. And a musical score is nearly non-existent.

Essentially, Miller leaves room for viewers to truly explore these scenes, to fall into them, and meditate on them. The picture isn't a pretty one, but the movie gets behind the impulses that created this situation. It doesn't spell them out; rather, it feels them out.

Miller is also the director of Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011), two other great films based on real-life, but that also managed to slow down to find moments of truth. (It will be interesting to see what happens when Miller decides to make an original, fictional film.) Foxcatcher is harder to watch than either of those, but it may be the best of the three movies.

So far, critics are picking up on the performances more than anything, especially Carell's. I think this is because he appears in so much makeup, and because he has transitioned from comedy roles to a serious one, that he appears to have made a complete transformation. He's the "most improved," and is generating the most buzz. And he is amazing. But this view short-changes both Tatum and Ruffalo, who also undergo complete physical transformations. Tatum moves in a totally new way, caged and defiant, while Ruffalo is looser and springier, more like a cheerful switchblade than a brutish beast. Both actors studied wrestling to the point of exhaustion so that they could effectively emulate Olympic champions; Miller's direction did not allow for cheating.

Foxcatcher will get great reviews and will probably do well with awards, but I just hope that people realize its hidden virtues, the ones that dig a little deeper than its "true story" and Carell's makeup. They may find some truly disturbing facets of the American Dream, but also a deeper understanding of it.

The movie received five Oscar nominations: Best Actor (Carell), Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo), Best Director (Miller), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Makeup. In 2015, Sony Pictures Classics released a Blu-ray edition that highlights the movie's exceptionally subtle visual scheme; its audio track is too muted to really show off a home system, but it's nicely rendered here. Extras are rather puny: a 15-minute studio-produced featurette, and two deleted scenes (about 5 minutes), plus trailers.

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