Director Bennett Miller has only done 3 films up to this point in his 16-year career. But any serious film-goer or movie connoisseur understands the impact this evidently very talented and gifted young filmmaker has had on the rest of the entire film landscape and community. He has an undeniably assured approach to craft and is an A rate storyteller. In many ways he reminds me of the Coen Brothers with their almost storybook-like approach in the way their stories are told. Though without the Coens’ smaller-indie leanings or sense of obscurity. Miller is maybe the most accessible independent filmmaker that works mostly out of the studio system. With the growing popularity of other directors to make films that seem hip or cool, seemingly fitting for our times, what separates Miller from this crop is that he has a classic Hollywood style in the way in which he tells his stories. The sole exception being his brilliant debut, a documentary shot in black + white about a young New York City tour guide by the name of Timothy “Speed” Levitch called “The Cruise” (1998). I first saw “The Cruise” after hearing from believe it or not of all people, Edward Norton, who listed it as one of his top 5 favorite films of all time. It was around this time that I saw Miller’s second film and first feature film – the Academy Award winning “Capote” (2004), which arguably featured one of if not the best acting performances of the last decade by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. One that would garner him both an Oscar nomination and win for his spellbinding performance. The film also got nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director (Miller), and Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener) categories. It was a landmark achievement for the then 37-year old Miller, and brought him praise and accolades from the entire film industry at large. Then came in what I still consider to be Miller’s finest work to date (prior to seeing this film) 2011’s “Moneyball”, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies about the game of baseball. Like “Capote” it too garnered several Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brad Pitt – in one of my still favorite roles of his second to only “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)), and Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill). Miller once again established himself as one of the most sought after directors in that within his only 2 feature films to date, he’s received more Academy Award nominations than any other director over the course of just 2 films. Which is an amazing achievement in and of itself. The difference between Miller and more traditional Hollywood Oscar bait directors is that Miller doesn’t seem to have a care in the world other than that of his own for the type of material in which he chooses to explore. Both “Moneyball” and “Capote” are films that inhabit another time and place, tackling themes that one could look at as still being prevalent today, but in worlds seemingly unfamiliar to the ones in which most of us exist in. And while some people felt like “Moneyball” was more of a “feel good film”. If you really read between the lines and underlying subtext there’s nothing cheery or happy about it. After waiting only 3 years between his last film and this, it almost felt like a treat in that we were being given another film from a director who seems to take considerable amounts of time (6 years if you average them out) off between them. Knowing my love for everything Miller has come out with up to this point (all 3 films of his have fallen in the “A” range for me) it was inevitable that I would be one of the first in line to see his next release, and I made a point of seeing it opening weekend.
Based on a true story the film first introduces to one its 2 main leads – a former Olympic gold wrestler named Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum. Mark seems to be in a bit of a slump, as he wants to train and continue his career in Wrestling. But he essentially has no way of supporting himself outside of living off of his about to run out of money that he earned several years earlier, all the while picking up small, humiliating jobs like talking to schools about what it means to be a former Olympic gold winner. He then by a matter of chance gets a phone call one day by John du Pont, played by the almost unrecognizable Steve Carell, complete with a prosthetic nose, teeth, and hidden under layers of makeup. Du Pont’s family is one of the wealthiest families in the country and have been for generations, and he has an enormous estate where he trains his Olympic Wrestling team that goes by “Team Foxcatcher”. Coach du Pont gives Mark the opportunity of a lifetime to come join his team, with full privileges to everything he could have possibly imagined in his wildest dreams. A guest house that would put any other guest house to shame, top class training facilities, and as much money as he could ever want. Mark has an older brother David (played by Mark Ruffalo), another former Olympic gold winner, who also happens to be Mark’s Wrestling coach. Not wanting to pass up a golden opportunity Mark takes up du Pont’s offer to join Team Foxcatcher. On the surface the offer seems too good to be true, but as Mark begins to train and win bouts he slowly starts to rebuild and regain the confidence he once had that went missing. Not to mention that through this process he starts to form a special bond with Coach du Pont and begins to look up to him as not only a mentor but a father figure. Though as the movie unravels we get to see that there’s a lot more than what meets the eye. And the mentor/peer dynamic starts to take a dramatic turn. As does the addition of David who also after some serious convincing, agrees to come work for Coach du Pont and join Team Foxcatcher so that he can train with his younger brother. Also like his brother he has an apparent drive to be the best again. And also like his brother he is convinced that only Team Foxcatcher can help bring him to the top. But at what expense and to what lengths will the brothers go under the increasingly suspicious and paranoid Coach du Pont?
This film wound up falling slightly below my expectations which admittedly were set pretty high. The first thing I think that needs pointing out are the very solid performances by the film’s two brothers – Tatum and Ruffalo, both of whom give career best performances. I will say this about the acting though, for all the Awards hype around Steve Carell being the second front-runner for Best Actor behind Michael Keaton in “Birdman”, I thought the other 2 actors outshined him. Carell’s character reminded me somewhat of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in Miller’s “Capote”. However whereas Hoffman really shined acting-wise underneath his mostly physical performance, Carell doesn’t quite achieve a fraction of the same level of acting with his performance. Don’t get me wrong it’s a very fine one indeed. But I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I felt like I wasn’t really watching all that much going on underneath the prosthetics, fake teeth, and makeup. As his performance came much more from the outside than in. A truly great performance, certainly an Award nominated one, should have you thinking that there’s no one else out there could have played the role other than that specific actor. And I didn’t really feel that way about Carell here. But that aside, both Ruffalo and Tatum (who I’m starting to gain a lot more respect for as an actor) really were the stand outs and both give knockout performances that one can really only sit back and admire at. The story itself has a lot to say about the abuses of wealth and power and how some people abuse them in selfish ways to try to gain what they want, when in actuality they’re so blinded they can’t see the impact that their ways have devastating effects on others around them. Both the relationships between the 2 brothers Mark (Tatum) and David (Ruffalo), as well as that between Mark and Coach du Pont, are very complex and well depicted. Miller also adds an almost “Capote”-like restrained approach to the proceedings. There’s a a certain stillness about it all and at times it felt clinical in the way it looked at and portrayed its subjects. Music is essentially non-existent until the drama heightens in its last act. Within this approach though Miller captures some beautiful establishing shots of the team training in different environments along with picturesque shots at both dusk and dawn around the du Pont estate. It’s a calculated, assured piece of directing that shines through in almost every frame and shot, and it becomes obvious why he took home the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Films Festival. The few criticisms I had of the piece is that it felt tediously slow at times, like you’re waiting for something to happen outside of the central storyline of depicting the downward spiral between mentor (Carell) and mentee (Tatum). While those scenes were good in terms of context in building and driving the story, I felt like they could have trimmed down that portion a bit and the end result would have still been just as effective. Also, and this might be the most important thing I have to say about it, was that it was incredibly sad. So much so at times that it made a lot of the film borderline uncomfortable to watch. At least it felt that way to me. It’s a feel and tone that permeates throughout the film, from beginning to end, and is chock full of scenes that are bleak, tragic, and excruciatingly painful to watch. Do I think it needed to be in order to tell the obviously tragic true story? Well, maybe it did if it was trying to stay true to the story of showing exactly how the events unfolded. I just personally had a hard time with how Greek tragedy-like sad it was. While we watch one character get so psychologically damaged that his mental state slowly declines until there isn’t a semblance left of himself. While also watching another one of the other character’s reveal his true identity of the utterly despicable and deplorable man that he is. So for those reasons, even despite the stellar acting from its 3 leads, it becomes a bit tedious and too dark at times. Which I often times really enjoy. But when the feeling and tone is so despairing from beginning to end, it makes it very difficult for me to recommend it to anybody outside of the looking to be unapologetically challenged and wanting go to that really dark place. But if it’s something that you can endure and sit through despite that, what you’ll find is a compelling and thought-provoking story, with at least 2 of the better performances I’ve seen this year, and a pretty solid 3rd one as well. It also includes a shocking climax that had myself and everyone else in the audience gasping in their seats, not quite knowing what to do or think once the end credits rolled.