Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ask Me a Question: Foxcatcher w/Bennett Miller

Released on 6 screens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend is true life Oscar contender hopeful Foxcatcher.  I knew nothing of the film besides the basic scenario of two brothers and champion wrestlers are sponsored by a millionaire then tragedy strikes.  It just reeked of award fodder with the based on a true story story, a somber tone, actors playing against type in heavy make up, etc.  It's the mid 80's and 1984 Gold Medal winner Mark Schultz is having a shitty go of life.  He makes $20 bucks to speak to disinterested elementary school kids, gets mistaken for his older brother Dave, eats fast food and ramen and lives in a not great apartment.  Big brother Dave, also a Gold Medal winner, is a natural coach and influence with a loving wife and kids and working on a deal with national brand, USA Wrestling.  One day out of the blue, Mark receives a phone call from the estate of one John E. du Pont, heir to the vast chemical and ammunition fortune of his Civil War ancestors.  du Pont requests Mark come visit him in Pennsylvania, traveling first class of course, to talk creating a training facility at the Foxcatcher Farm in order to win at the World Championships and then the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea in a bid to better America.  While du Pont is an extremely educated and accomplished man, he's a published author and noted ornithologist, he loves sports and wants the family to be known for something more than his mother's horse show and riding accolades.

Seemingly too good to be true, Mark packs up and heads to the du Pont estate where he's provided a fully stocked chalet to live in and top of the line training facility to build his team.  Brother Dave isn't interested in uprooting his family so Mark sees it as a chance to finally get out of the shadow of his big brother.  Things start off well enough with du Pont giving Schultz every opportunity to better himself, mingle with high society and the duo win at the World Championships.  Bad influence cocaine encroaches, Mark loses focus, cuts ties with his brother and begins to mentally check out.  That's when du Pont brings in Dave and things start to go wrong.  We're never sure exactly why Mark is so angry at du Pont besides building him up only to favor the big brother like everyone else does in the end.  I thought there would be some kind of homosexual relationship uncovered here with Mark feeling like an abused servant, giving up his morals and dreams for money but nothing is ever brought to light.  There are flashes of du Pont's erratic and repressed behavior; waking Mark up in the middle of the night for a training session, wrestling and winning against paid opponents, shocking the wrestlers by firing a gun into the ceiling, angling to be the coach and mentor Dave is for his mother's approval, etc.

Foxcatcher is anchored by the strong performances of it's three leads; Channing Tatum plays Mark with brooding, emotionally lost strength, Steve Carrell is nearly unrecognizable under a fake nose and prosthetic appliances as the odd and sad du Pont while Mark Ruffalo is solid and genial as the big brother coach everybody loves.  The script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman is very sparse and gives the leads much to do but supporting players like Dave's wife played by Sienna Miller has nothing to do and is nearly silent in the role.  While the drama is built up well enough it doesn't quite keep you engaged through it's over two hour run time.  Director Bennett Miller, fresh off two other true story based motion pictures, Capote and Moneyball, provides a stark and somber affair with little music throughout so much of the film plays out in silence and you get self conscious about eating that big bag of popcorn.  There are some great scenes in the film, from Mark and Dave's increasingly aggressive wrestling workout to a helicopter ride where du Pont hammers Mark to expand his vocabulary while introducing him to cocaine to a hotel breakdown scene where Mark has just lost a qualifying match.  The end tragedy is shocking and violent but we don't see anyone's reaction to it in the aftermath so it's up to the viewer to do some research to get a more complete picture.

After the film, a writer for Variety introduced director Miller who honestly didn't seem like he wanted to be there and what ensued was one of the most awkward Q&A's I've ever attended.

- Asked about getting involved with the project, Miller said he was doing a DVD signing of a documentary 7-8 years ago and a total stranger gave him an envelope of news clippings about the story and thought he would be interested in it.  Miller seemed seriously annoyed at the simple question which lead to some very fake smile/laughing from the moderator and the director seemingly annoyed to be there.
- Miller seemed very uninterested in the moderator's questions and immediately wanted to hear from the audience instead.  Some not very good and long winded queries followed.
- Offered Tatum the role 7-8 years ago after seeing him in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and wanted a true unknown in the role.  Cut to today and Tatum is a superstar.
- Talked to the du Pont family lawyer who was neither overly forthcoming or obstructive.
- Mark Ruffalo was an accomplished wrestler in his youth and had a real bond with Dave's widow to give his performance honesty.  Many people who knew Dave did double takes when Ruffalo was in costume and character. 
- Steve Carrell was not on Miller's list, name submitted through agent.  The two met where Carrell explained that all characters he played had a mushy center and du Pont seemed to be the same but with the capacity for more.
- On the homosexual rumors and not openly addressing them in the film, Miller said many of the wrestlers who trained at Team Foxcatcher had heard about du Pont grabbing in the bathing suit area but none of them had actually ever experienced it.
- Miller felt his perception of the du Pont character was a man who made himself out to be something he could never live up to as a coach, mentor, athlete, etc and more or less a repressed individual that built up steam and resentment over the decades.
- Tatum's breakdown scene was done in one shot with the actor keeping to himself before shooting and being very lucky he didn't injure himself.
- Miller did a smart thing and thanked the audience for being there and was happy to see a packed house.

While Foxcatcher will probably catch some awards heat for acting, I can't see it being celebrated for it's narrative or story telling technique.  I'm putting Foxcatcher after fellow award hopefuls Birdman and Interstellar and way behind Miller's previous, fantastic work, Moneyball.  The unanswered questions and unsatisfying explanations did lead me to do some research on my own though where details left out or compressed for runtime elaborated the unfortunate and sad circumstances of the lives portrayed. 

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