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Posts Tagged ‘Bennett Miller’

There has been some fuss in sections of the media about the fact that this year’s Oscar shortlists are not as ethnically varied as many people would like to see. If you ask me, it’s no good complaining to the academy itself about this sort of thing, they can only respond to the films that people are making (the obvious parallel would be with complaining to the weatherman about there not being enough sun). It’s just easier and more rewarding to take a pop at Oscar than actually get the movie studios to implement change, because – for whatever reason – the films that are currently being made appear rather skewed in favour of certain demographics.

I’m not just referring to ethnicity, either: last week I saw the brilliant Whiplash, in which there was only one notable female character, and the least significant of the film’s four leads. And more recently I went to see Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which again is a film dominated by men. It’s a tricky question: Whiplash and Foxcatcher are both superior films, the existence of which doubtless benefits the world at large, but I appreciate the validity of the pro-diversity argument in general. It may simply come down to the fact that most senior figures in the film industry are men, and a lot of the time it’s men who decide which film they and their friends go to see.

foxcatcher

As films go, Foxcatcher is more about masculinity than most, though it initially looks like it’s going to be addressing the issue of class in America. Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a gold-medal-winning wrestler who as the story opens is eking out a fairly miserable existence, trying to prepare for upcoming competitions, feeling himself very much overshadowed by his elder brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a champion wrestler, but also a successful coach and family man. (I should point out that this film deals with what I believe is technically called Graeco-Roman wrestling, the competitive discipline featured at the Olympics, not the muscle-bound clown soap opera which formed the springboard of the careers of people like the Rock.)

Things change for Mark when he is invited to visit the palatial home of John du Pont (Steve Carell), one of the richest men in America and an avid wrestling follower – this despite the icy disapproval of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Du Pont proposes that Mark come to live on his estate, where a state-of-the-art training facility has been constructed, and they work together to prepare for the upcoming 1988 Olympics. Du Pont believes together they can bring about not just a sporting but a moral revival of the USA, and Mark eagerly buys into his ideas.

What follows is a strangely engrossing personal drama, with many peculiar twists and turns along the way. As you may have gathered, this is based on a true story, but not one with which I was at all familiar. I did know there was a murder at some point in events, but I’d no idea who was going to kill whom or why – and while the murder is obviously the key event of this saga, one of the things that makes it so shocking is the fact it appears to be almost wholly unpremeditated: a random, chaotic act of insanity. But that equally makes it unsatisfactory as the culmination of a developing plotline, and as a result Foxcatcher feels unresolved, somehow.

What is certain is that the film works extremely well as a character study, not just of John Du Pont but also Mark Schultz. There is perhaps the vaguest echo of the glazed intensity of Brick Tamland in Steve Carell’s performance, but for the most part he is playing (and underplaying) it utterly straight: to the point, in fact, where Du Pont becomes a bleakly funny character. ‘Eccentric millionaire’ is much too cheery-sounding a term for a man who, to put it mildly, seems to have severe issues, not least with reconciling his passion for wrestling with his position in one of America’s most senior families – something not helped by his mother’s ill-concealed contempt for the sport.

Equally troubled, in a different fashion, is Mark Schultz – a man only fully able to express himself physically, and frustrated by this, and his sense of his own inferiority to his brother. The collapse of his parents’ marriage may also have fed into his various issues, and it’s entirely understandable that he should initially have fallen so completely under Du Pont’s spell. Channing Tatum plays him extremely well. I’ve never really been able to decide what kind of actor Tatum is in the past – is he just a kind of good-looking jock action-hero or romantic lead, or does he have real acting chops in there somewhere? Foxcatcher proves the latter: this is a properly accomplished performance. Ruffalo is also very solid in a somewhat less demanding role.

Vanessa Redgrave is really only in a couple of scenes in quite a long film, and the same is true of Sienna Miller who plays Dave Schultz’s wife: I’m actually a little unsure why they bothered recruiting such well-known names for what are comparatively minor roles. The rest of the film is about men, and masculine relationships – Mark’s relationship with his brother, but also the quasi-paternal bond he develops with Du Pont. There is quite a lot of man-on-man hugging in this film, and apparently Mark Schultz did complain about the homo-erotic undertones he detected – but there’s bound to be an element of that, not to mention some comedy, in any film with quite as many men in unitards grappling with each other as this one.

Foxcatcher is a measured film and a thoughtful one, and the various scenes of people wrestling with each other are not exactly what you’d call action sequences. As a result, I’m not entirely surprised it has proved more popular with critics than audiences. I’m not sure it is honestly what you could call a great film, but it certainly contains some great performances.

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