Skip to main content

Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.

Foxcatcher
(2014)

(SPOILERS) I really liked Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, a hard sell of a baseball tale (not a sport I have any interest in; I prefer rounders) dramatising a controversial system for assembling winning teams rather than taking the usual tack of following the glories of the players themselves. Foxcatcher, another true-life sports tale, is much less successful. On paper it sounds like a no-brainer; Olympic athletes, rich dynasties and murder. But somehow Miller’s film wears its fascinating subject matter down, becoming an inscrutable and distancing piece that resists its compelling potential.


1984 Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, all protruding Neanderthal jaw), not-so-little and not-so-bright brother of also Olympic wrestling champion, coach and family man Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo, exploring a really bad hair day for his art), lives in his older sibling’s shadow, so jumps at the offer by John E du Pont (Steve Carell, a walking nose prosthesis, not that he needed one in the first place), heir to the du Pont family fortune and unparalleled wrestling fan, to come and join his Team Foxcatcher where he will be paid handsomely as he trains for the World Championship. It sounds like a great deal, but that’s not factoring in what a complete weirdo John du Pont is.


Dave initially refuses to join his brother, and du Pont, still attached to the apron strings of his frail mother (memorably played by Vanessa Redgrave), embarks on a peculiar friendship with Mark, one where he wakes him in the middle of the night for intimate wrestling bouts and seeks validation for his own pitiful attempts at wrestling and leadership. He also asks to be called Eagle, or Golden Eagle, or John, or Coach; Mark continues calling him sir. After a sniff of proffered coke, Mark’s own training regimen comes unstuck, his hair gets highlights and he starts pigging out. Then his enchantment with his generous benefactor is fatally broken after du Pont strikes him one day (hanging out with the rest of the team at the chalet where he stays, presumably seen as snub by du Pont). Soon after this, Dave arrives, and Mark’s departure is set in stone.


What precisely leads du Pont to shoot Dave repeatedly one wintery morning isn’t clear from the film (“Do you have a problem with me?” he asks before firing), probably because it isn’t clear to the makers just what made du Pont tick. It may be a combination of Dave’s respectful indifference to the lauded and yes-sir status du Pont is used to, or it maybe that he has lost Mark; Miller establishes homoerotic undertones (denied by the real Mark) to the relationship, while du Pont has Mark call him the father he always wish he had in a big speech.


Even with events compressed and altered as they are (in reality, Dave was shot eight years after Mark left Foxcatcher), Bennett and writers E Max Frye and Dan Futterman seem content not to attempt to illuminate. Indeed, they remain remote to the story and aloof from the characters. Sometimes such an approach can serve a narrative, but here, where the central duo is so unrelatable (Dave is only ever peripheral to the main plot, even when he moves to Foxcatcher), there needs to be something more.


Both Tatum and (particularly) Ruffalo are very good, but Dave’s dim watt passive aggression makes for a difficult protagonist (again, this is seems to be a choice made by Miller, as the loner of the movie was really a party guy). Ruffalo brings his ever-present empathy to bear in spades. Carrell’s a different story. It’s difficult to tell if he’s essaying an unknowable man, or just hiding behind prostheses and an impenetrable demeanour. Either way, du Pont is never other than a caricature. At times this even passes into familiar Carrell territory, an excruciating comedy without the laughs (most notably trying to impress his mother by ordering the team).


The picture plods along unhurriedly and there are no heated exchanges, confrontations or dramatics that might inform du Pont’s murderous act (he eventually died in prison). Again, sometimes this sort of slow burn can be hypnotic, but here it’s tiresome. It doesn’t help that, with its unapologetic ‘80s milieu, Foxcatcher is an aesthetically unwelcoming picture. One comes away agreeing with the snobby du Pont matriarch that “It’s a low sport” (not that fox hunting’s anything to be proud of), even as a backdrop to the events depicted here. More than that, even a cursory glance at the real story suggests the tack taken by Miller (who spent a year editing the picture, so presumably encountered hiccups along the way) might not have best suited the material.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.