In many respects, film criticism is about finding an intellectual justification for an emotional response. Take Whiplash, for example, one of my favourite films of last year. I saw the film twice, and each time was overcome by a visceral, physical response; but to simply record that response as a review felt somehow inadequate. Instead, I questioned the cinematic devices that brought that response, formal qualities – tight editing, Simmons’ towering performance – and intellectual – the film’s intimate examination of hypermasculine competiveness – alike. These observations came not as I watched the film – for a great movie tends to overwhelm sober intellectual analysis during its runtime – but upon reflection afterwards.
However it isn’t always so easy to unite intellectual analysis with the way a film strikes you; so it is with Benedict Miller’s Foxcatcher. The film pressed down upon me like a monolithic concrete slab, leaving me exhausted and weary. Foxcatcher captivated me; it depressed me; it left an indelible emotional imprint. And yet when I attempt to excavate its themes, to delve beneath its surface, I find incomplete allegories and insubstantial characterisation. The concrete crumbles like plaster in my grasp.
Foxcatcher, as with many of its Oscar season compatriots, draws its story from the recent past. The narrative centres around two brothers – Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), each competitive wrestlers, each Olympic gold-medallists, each maintaining a strained, intense bond with the other – and the mysterious millionaire, John DuPont (Steve Carell), who funded their training at his Foxcatcher ranch. This triangle is tested by the tensions between the three men and ultimately broken by murder.
Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman don’t demonstrate any particular interest in developing a coherent psychological explanation for the murder. The three men are granted relatively complex characterisation – Tatum as an insecure simpleton, Ruffalo a pragmatic family man, Carell a spoiled, borderline unhinged creep – yet there’s a rigidity to their depictions that precludes substantial character arcs from emerging. There’s no sense that the film is attempting to understand or explain the minor tragedy that it chronicles. Foxcatcher simply observes from a dispassionate distance.
Neither is Miller especially interested in realism; the storyline diverges wildly from the time line of the real events that inspired it, while the tone of affected, occasionally stilted fatalism. An early scene where Tatum mumbles through a speech before a disinterested crowd of high schoolers for a meagre twenty dollar cheque is telling in this regard. Like much of the subsequent film, there’s a grey, dense fog engulfing down over the scene, giving it the tenor of a self-serious satire (or a nightmare, like the dream of delivering a speech in one’s underwear).
This anti-realistic approach is indicative of Foxcatcher’s aspirations of allegorical resonance. Not that the film is especially subtle in its attempts to align its events with some grand statement about America (in fact, I’m somewhat surprised that they didn’t go with American Wrestler for the title). It’s a tired cliché to argue that a film is really “about America” (or even, “about the American Dream”). But it’s hardly a tenuous reading when the film is littered with grave speeches about the American way and flaccid America flags; nor when it concludes with the disembodied chant of “USA! USA! USA!”
Despite all the leaden dialogue and solemn symbols, I’m not convinced Foxcatcher earns its stripes as an Important Movie About America Today. Just as the screenplay resists providing a clear explanation of the human motivations behind the eventual murder, it refuses to explicate the parallels between America, the Schultz brothers and John DuPont. There are moments of insight – DuPont, whose family rose to the upper class through their ammunition production, demonstrates an obsession with weaponry that reflects his country. More compelling, I’d argue, is how the conflation between wrestling and America reveals the framework of lies that underpins each institution (whether it’s the denial of homoeroticism that provides a fundamental appeal of competitive wrestling, or the transparent fakery of its commercial counterpart).
But these fraught thematic threads are allowed to fray rather than tied directly into the film’s conclusion, Miller paradoxically determined both to provide a grand political statement and reluctant to present a coherent thesis. If my goal as a critic is to present an intellectually-motivated argument for Foxcatcher’s merit, I have failed. I could direct your attention to the film’s formal qualities – an attempt at Fincher mimicry that erodes that director’s slickness – but there’s competence here, not mastery.
The actors’ performances aren’t enough, either. Tatum makes for a convincing manchild, while Carell ratchets up his Michael Scott rhetoric with an edge of psychopathy that is somewhat undercut by his unconvincing accent and prosthetic nose. Carell’s awkward physicality impresses, as though he’s a small child clumsily controlling a grown man, and there’s an engaging weirdness to the performance, but it doesn’t warrant the awards season attention it has attracted. Ruffalo is the stand out; aloof, uncertain, human. While these three men play a part in my appreciation of the film, I can’t point to their performances as a convincing exemplar of Foxcatcher’s merits.
Conventional critical tools, then, seem inadequate. I can imagine collecting the above in analysis into a sneering pan, directing barbs at the film’s over-obvious symbols, the static characterisation and the suffocating tone. That last point is, I suspect, the sticking point for those critics underwhelmed by Foxcatcher, who feel they’ve been forced to endure two-plus hours of morose defeatism. And I don’t expect my review is going to convert any sceptics. But that stifling atmosphere is critical to my appreciation of the film and, ultimately, why it impressed me as much as it did.
Foxcatcher may not present a compelling intellectual link between its events and its sceptical depiction of a nation in downfall. And yet, it fluently conjures the deadening sense of being a cog in the machine of a callous society, a participant in a late capitalist country marching inexorably towards devastation. It has the brittle, weary humidity that precedes an impenetrable, black storm. Foxcatcher’s aesthetic channels the hopelessness of America even as it struggles to explicate the same in its screenplay; it confounds my critical faculties yet leaves me irrevocably affected. Recommended.