The Leaders of the Chase, by David Bax
Bennett Miller’s visual austerity tends to make his films read immediately as important works. That’s not to say that they aren’t, only to say that his aesthetic signifiers make his movies instantly recognizable as the kind that win awards. This, in turn, makes them more digestible. Compare them to other such works, though, and you’ll find that the similarities are only superficial. Take last year’s Oscar-winner, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. McQueen took a frank look at a terrible time in American history and made his film appropriately difficult to bear witness to. Taken in total, however, the film is more reassuring than challenging to its intended audience. McQueen’s formal beauty may have tussled with the ugliness of the content up on the surface but below that lie nothing more than affirmations of truths about slavery that only a monster would deny today. Miller, on the other hand, keeps the ugliness just out of view. It’s not revolutionary to announce that Capote is about the brutality that has accompanied the noble and intellectual experiment of this country since we stole it by genocide. Or that Moneyball exposes the bureaucratic profiteering that churns within our gentle national pastime. Yet, when you’re watching these films, these things aren’t the focus, at least not until they end. Miller shows us America as we know it and then stands back and lets us discover the gangrene under the skin for ourselves. There are some things about Miller’s newest film, Foxcatcher, that will make it seem like a departure. But, with the above in mind, it becomes clear that not only is it in harmony with his previous work but it is his best yet.
Foxcatcher tells the true story of John du Pont (Steve Carell) – heir to the du Pont chemical fortune and by far one of the wealthiest men in America – and his relationship with two brothers, Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively), both Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers. Du Pont intends to use his means to create a premier wrestling training facility on his family’s massive estate, where the U.S. team will prepare for the 1988 games in Seoul. Young Mark is to be his stud and he hopes to court the older David as a coach and as bait to other aspiring Olympians. Carell’s assured performance lets us establish a firm hold on an obviously unstable character. His softness and vulnerability make him sympathetic but there’s a maladjusted tyrant behind his eyes, ready to leap forth when insecurity overtakes him, which is a constant threat. It’s clear why Mark – whom Tatum plays with a more grounded take on the lovable, dim-bulb lug from the Jump Street series – is as susceptible to du Pont’s fraternal overtures as he is cowed by his terrifying malevolence. It’s almost incredible how fitting a metaphor wrestling makes. Were this a work of pure fiction, it would be on the nose. No sport calls for more intimacy between men (including homoeroticism, which is not overlooked here) and only a few sports are more overtly violent.
What wrestling doesn’t feature is much in the way of dialogue. Therein lies the main point of departure from Miller’s previous work. Capote was replete with scenes of one of the century’s greatest writers sitting down and talking to a prisoner. And Moneyball was written, in part, by Aaron Sorkin, maybe the wordiest screenwriter of our era. Compare those two films to the scene in which we first see Mark and David interact as brothers. Hardly a word is spoken while they train in the gym. As they lean into one another and glide through well-rehearsed maneuvers, an interplay between frustration and nurture ripples across their muscled forms. Later, we will be told that Mark was essentially raised by his older brother but, after this scene, we could have guessed that already.
Foxcatcher’s screenplay may weigh in a bit lighter than Miller is used to but where he wisely chooses not to depart from his ways is in form. Miller is an unostentatiously gutsy formalist. Despite working with a different director of photography on each of his three films, there are aesthetic through-lines. Most notable is a predilection for long lenses that flatten out the space depicted in the image, not in an ugly way but such that the subject and background are on near equal footing. The same impulses are on display in Miller’s shot choices. Miller is just as promiscuous with editors as with cinematographers but the traits remain the same. He vacillates calmly between shots of people (mostly in close or medium framing) and shots of those people’s environments. His average shot length feels longer than we’ve become accustomed to and he resists the urge to quicken the pace as treachery creeps into the story so that, instead of resembling a cheap thriller, Foxcatcher becomes an exercise in creeping dread.
Miller’s lack of frills allows the cast to stand out; great performances are another hallmark of his work. There are solid supporting turns from Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Michael Hall but the film revolves around Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo. Through them, Miller shows us variations on the American dream. The Schultz brothers don’t go around talking about the idea of hard work and individuality paying off; they simply live it. It’s only du Pont who speechifies about being your own person and takes it upon himself to make America great. But, if our nation’s narrative goes from rags to riches, what becomes of those already born at the end of the equation? Foxcatcher gives us a harrowing possible answer wherein du Pont’s privilege has set him so far apart from his countrymen that he’s breathing different air and it’s made him sick in ways we can’t imagine.