This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching two films with extraordinary performances from the leads, making each memorable and insanely watchable. But in each film, decisions were made effectively marring the overall experience, making each 'Very Good' instead of ‘Extraordinary’.
In the late '80s, John du Pont (Steve Carell), one of THE du Ponts, decides to build a state-of-the-art wrestling facility on the family's estate outside Philadelphia. He states that he wants America to achieve greatness at the Seoul Olympics, but he has deep, hidden reasons for wanting to do this, one of which is to gain the approval of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who has raised and ridden horses her entire life. John reaches out to Olympic gold medal winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who has had a real struggle since winning the medal at the 1984 Los Angeles games. Quiet, insular and very impressionable, Mark jumps at the chance to coach a team at John's facility. But John decides Mark is not achieving the results he needs and coaxes Mark's brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a highly respected trainer, to move the whole family out to his property and to take over for his brother. Mark isn't too happy, but the brothers eventually work things out and this leaves John out of the circle, which doesn't set right with him.
Written by E. Max Frye (writer/ director of "Amos & Andrew") and Dan Futterman (an actor who also wrote "Capote") and directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote", "Money Ball"), "Foxcatcher" features incredible performances from all three leads. But Miller chooses to tell this story in an austere way which makes it almost impossible to build sympathy for John, Mark or Dave. Because we don't feel for any of the characters, watching the film becomes an experience akin to watching an actual documentary. You start looking at the information and pull even further away from the performances.
I understand why Miller chose to tell the story in this way - a significant portion of the film involves the tale of John du Pont, a member of the richest-of-the-rich upper class, someone who has great difficulty showing emotion. Mark also has a lot of difficulty opening up to others and is a very silent guy. It wouldn't be right to see either of them walking about, hugging others, showing their emotions. But "Foxcatcher" still makes for a very strange experience.
Carell, in particular, spectacularly cast against type, does a fantastic job bringing John du Pont to life. You will quickly forget you are watching a man who is best known for his work as a comedian as he tilts his head back (the better for the 1% to look down on others), squints his eyes and flashes his gummy, insecure smile. As soon as we meet du Pont, we realize their is something uneasy, unnatural about him. He doesn't quite get how to relate to others, which is most likely a product of his upbringing. But he still has the innate need to make something of himself, if for no other reason than to gain the approval of his mother. He turns his attention to his one true calling and builds a wrestling facility on the grounds of the family estate not far from Gettysburg. He jumps at the chance to mention how he is doing this for the "good of America" and how he wants to renew our "faith in America", but John doesn't seem to be entirely convinced of this mission or he is using it as a subtext for something else, something a little more lurid.
I enjoyed every minute of Carell's performance, for the same reason I always thought he was so brilliant as Michael Scott on "The Office". Carell brought a lot of insecurity to his portrayal of Michael Scott, so every time he makes a statement, proving what a blowhard he is, there is a brief flicker of the eyes, or a slight frown, showing that the bravura is simply a costume he wears in order to be what he believes is an effective leader of his team at Dundler-Mifflin. And of course, Michael Scott is just the opposite, yet everybody still loves him. Except for maybe Toby?
As John du Pont, Carell also tries to hide the man's insecurities, but these character traits are much more front and center, making them more difficult to hide. Yes, he is one of the richest people in America, yet he still feels he needs a purpose in life. So he turns to wrestling and attempts to build a world-class team. But he is also in this for the glory, so as he builds the team, he also participates in a match, winning a trophy. He proudly shows the trophy to his mother, trying to win her approval, trying to impress her. Later, when she visits the training facility, clearly at the invitation of her son, he interrupts the wrestlers' training with Dave to become their trainer and demonstrate some moves in front of his mother.
There is an undercurrent of creepiness to du Pont. The wrestlers clearly would rather he didn't participate in their training, they seem to get a feeling from him, they seem to sense that something else might be going on. But du Pont continues to force himself upon the wrestlers, upon Mark and upon Dave, desperate for recognition, desperate for a connection.
Carell's du Pont is the type of performance that can and should be recognized for an Oscar - the role is so different from anything he has ever done and he does it extremely well, proving that he can be a force in all genres of film.
Bennett Miller, the director of the film, did a brief Q & A after the screening I attended. He talked about casting Channing Tatum first, when he first started working on the film eight years ago. He commented that at that point, he was interested in casting an unknown as Mark Schultz. I know. That statement also generated a chuckle in the audience. Tatum is now about as far from unknown as possible. But eight years ago, when the finished film was but a glimmer in Miller's eye, unknown. He's good to look at, but is he a good actor? In much of his previous work, I would say 'No', just a pretty face. But in "Foxcatcher", Tatum brings a lot of complexity to his portrayal of Mark Schultz. It is easily the best performance of his career so far.
As soon as Mark first appears on screen, we know something isn't completely right about him. He seems quiet, withdrawn, lonely. But part of this is due in part to the way he feels he has been treated since becoming an Olympic gold medalist; he lives in a cheap, broken down apartment eating ramen noodles. He spends time every day training with his brother. Their time together illustrates the length and depth of their bond - Dave pretty much raised Dave and they have a practiced routine when training, so a lot of words are not necessary.
Tatum brings a lot of non-verbal cues to portrayal of Mark, something which seems completely natural. But more importantly, this is consistent throughout allowing us to become a part of Mark's world, to really start to get into his world and his space, as much as possible given his extremely introverted nature.
Mark Ruffalo plays older brother David, a well-respected and much loved wrestler and trainer. Ruffalo has a less showy transformation, but he still does a remarkable job giving us a portrait of David. Because of their bond, David shows up at du Pont's training facility and can see Mark is having some problems. As soon as he starts training the wrestlers, Mark remains on his own, doing things his own way. But David is eventually able to get through to his brother and this reaffirms the bond they share, making them closer than ever. Once David reestablishes this connection, he acts as a gate keeper, keeping John away from Mark.
And John doesn't appreciate this.
As the story continues, the strange, undefined dynamic between all three men seems to change and evolve (or devolve depending on how you look at it) with every word and every interaction. This change makes "Foxcatcher" an engaging film, always holding your attention.
But about halfway through, you begin to realize something is missing. The austerity of the surroundings, and the detached nature of two of the three leads, makes it difficult to connect with anyone or to get completely involved in the story. Miller does this intentionally, to mirror the surroundings, but keeping the audience at arm's length is a tricky idea. On the one hand, it does help to reinforce the ideas behind two of the characters, so it works to paint a more complete picture. But on the other hand, if we are so detached from everything, we don't feel for anything and that makes watching the film a little more hollow.
There is also a lot of stuff that is barely hinted at in the film and nothing is stated explicitly. This is an interesting choice by Miller, yet it works because our imagination is left to fill in the blanks. And our imagination is usually more vivid.
"Foxcatcher" is a very good film containing three great performances. It falls just short of being a great film because it doesn't really connect us to any of the characters or the narrative. Without that connection, it feels like we are watching a documentary. And that isn't such a great thing.