Foxcatcher a slow but powerful tragedy

That’s Steve Carrell. Seriously. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

It’s looking like all the major awards this year are going to be between Foxcatcher and Birdman, and Birdman should win every single one, but Foxcatcher is still pretty OK.

The third biopic of director Bennett Miller’s career, after following writer Truman Capote and general manager Billy Beane, follows Olympic gold wrestlers and brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) after billionaire philanthropist John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell) sponsors their training for the upcoming world championships and next Olympics. The characters are set up in a battle of mentors, with du Pont and Dave Schultz battling for Mark Schultz’ soul.

Miller is a masterful filmmaker who has demonstrated time and time again the ability to find the human element behind the real-life events that he recreates in film, though the reproductions do need to be taken with a heavy grain of salt. Foxcatcher is much more Capote than Moneyball, driven by acting and constructed mostly of long shots in which not much happens.

This is Miller’s biggest weakness — he gets incredible performances out of his actors, but he’s a moviemaker and he seems like he’s afraid to make the footage he collects into movies. He would be a marvelous stage director, as that platform is supposed to be driven by actors, but movies suffer when the director doesn’t take charge.

Miller’s desire to let the performances drive the bus leads to some pretty big editing problems. Foxcatcher’s opening scene is a great example. It starts with Mark Schultz practicing his wrestling moves on a dummy, then his modest, married-with-children elder brother Dave Schultz comes into the gym and demolishes him in a sparring match. The goal of the scene is to build Mark’s inferiority complex.

But the scene is one long sequence, every second of which is shown. Even the parts where it’s just the brothers resetting or Mark putting the dummy back up. Cutting this sort of thing into a montage shortens the film, makes it seem like the scene takes a longer time and makes Mark’s defeat heavier. This sort of editing doesn’t take away from performances — it adds to them.

And the performances in this movie…

Carrell, Tatum and Ruffalo are magnificent and completely unrecognizable. They speak so much with body language and facial expressions and little delays that should have stayed even with harsher editing. In what feels, at times, like a silent film, these three communicate more emotions in fewer words than most talkies can conjure. Tatum and Ruffalo’s most powerful scenes are powerful because of what isn’t, and doesn’t need to be, said out loud.

Foxcatcher pushes to the edge of what can and can’t be clearly communicated to viewers without spelling it out like they’re idiots, and it’s mostly successful. It’s not an easy movie to watch — it won’t come to viewers, viewers must go to it — but the reward is a film that is funny and tense and tragic and repulsive, even if a little too long.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and news editor for the NT Daily. A fiery death awaits you! I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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