Foxcatcher (2014)



Foxcatcher isn’t for everybody. Hell, it’s barely even for me. It creeps through its real-life chain of aggravating episodes with quiet resolution, almost never raising its voice, painting every place and person with measured, desaturated strokes, and when it moves in for the (figurative and literal) kill, it’s in a blunt, deliberately frustrating fashion. This is just the way things were, director Bennett Miller seems to be telling us; however much the film’s script may have deviated from the facts, Miller never disrespects their stranger-than-fiction edge in the name of Hollywoodness. If anything, he overplays the offputting and bizarre in his material, from Steve Carell’s slightly-too-uncanny demeanor in the skin of noted weirdo John Du Pont to the unabashed thematic fixation with America, America, America and her vices. Some things in Foxcatcher absolutely do not belong in the plain, messy, non-metaphoric realm of real life from where it was theoretically drawn. It’s a strange direction for a ripped-from-the-headlines movie to go in, this determination to fill every corner of the screen with waveringly visible subtext, but I respect Miller for trying it — after all, it just about worked. The movie it produced is an engrossing, commendably discomfiting slice of Greek tragedy, with just enough thesis-statement introspection to make it worth revisiting.

Yes, it’s boring. Its plot would have trouble piquing anyone’s interest, I suspect even Miller’s, were it not for its horrible, tabloid-fueling conclusion. There’s very little amusement to derive from the messed-up psychological match between an aimless freestyle wrestler and the stern, narcissistic billionaire who offers him the world, especially when both men are so painfully incapable of communicating their thoughts and emotions. A lot of the dialogue in Foxcatcher is found not in spoken words but in the sour, subtly volatile expressions of Carell and Channing Tatum, who give Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons a run for their money as the pair of male leads with the strangest, most captivating dynamic of 2014. (I’m tempted to say both this and Whiplash focus on mentor-pupil relationships, but that’s not true of Foxcatcher: Carell and the filmmakers go out of their way to show Du Pont is only a “coach” in his own head.) And yes, close-ups of faces aren’t particularly fun to watch for two hours. Personally, I think the word “boring” is an empty accusation in and of itself; it’s perfectly acceptable as a subjective reason to dislike a movie, but when it comes to film criticism, one must try to look past it. If this film were “boring” and offered nothing in lieu of entertainment, then yes, I would be the first to dismiss it. But a “boring” movie in the conventional, slow-moving, uneventful sense is not always the same as an uninteresting one (my favorite movie of 2012 was The Master, a film that got called boring so many times some doctors may have started prescribing it as insomnia treatment), and Foxcatcher is eminently interesting if you’re on board with its peculiar aesthetic.

First and foremost, of course, because Miller has the tact to find what’s intriguing in his true narrative, and to never lose focus on that. The murder at the center of the Foxcatcher furor may have been what drew the filmmakers to this story, but it turns out that it wasn’t a random act of violence: the possible “why”s found in the preceding years of desolation, uncertainty and ass-kissing at the training facility thus form the meat of the film. The notorious killing itself is not the gist of the story, but a result of it. When it happens in the movie, it feels almost like a non-sequitur. It isn’t, though; the subtle psychoanalisis leading to that moment is always on point — even if it’s sometimes too subtle for some tastes, if not outright vague. Is Du Pont sponsoring a wrestling team because he’s compelled to embody the great American values he keeps bringing up, or because he wants to impress his mother? Is he a normal person consumed by entitlement or does he have some sort of mental illness? Are Mark Schultz’s constant attempts to please him a reflex of deep-seated father issues, or just a childish response to his aid? Does Mark eventually want to leave Foxcatcher because he feels harassed by Du Pont or because he has had enough of freestyle wrestling? None of those questions have clear answers, and the movie allows for multiple readings, but the character work never rings a false note. In the end, any interpretations take us to the same conclusions regarding the film’s grander themes.

Admittedly, those conclusions aren’t exactly revolutionary: the United States are a country fueled by false ideology, ruled by petty magnates and tormented by unhealthy delusions of grandeur. Miller is more interested in showing the effects of those well-known national maladies on a personal level than in diagnosing new ones. This is a less profound study than the likes of The Social Network or The Master, then, but it’s still a fascinating snapshot in its own right, as rarely has a movie felt so disturbingly Eaglelandish. The simultaneously lifeless and excessive production design, the punctual and incisive appearance of handguns, the omnipresence of cameras and television footage as a repackaging of reality, everything on screen collaborates to create the aura of a revelatory American nightmare. Again, that’s an unexpectedly expressionistic vein for a true-crime flick, but again it is called for. How could it not with such an innately weird subject matter?

The same can be said about a lot of Foxcatcher, and the movie’s greatest merit lies in never going overboard with its larger-than-life stylistic choices. That balance is hard to pull off, so props to Bennett Miller for managing it. His Best Director win at Cannes seems fair enough on that front. For an example of that, take Carell’s performance. Considering his past work, surely the actor himself is more than capable of manifesting a wide range of emotions, with or without a truckload of prosthetic makeup covering his face (though it begs remembrance that the real Du Pont did have the static eyebrows and awkward facial tics that many found disconcerting in Carell’s characterization), so the almost imperturbable stillness of his countenance must have been a directorial choice. Watch videos of Du Pont giving interviews and you may find yourself wondering what’s the point; he was a creepy man for sure, but he seemed capable enough of expressing human emotion, at least in front of the cameras. In Foxcatcher, Du Pont remains austere even when he’s being filmed. We barely see him as a human being. Carell’s work impeccably captures the man at his least sociable, but never goes for more than that facet; even his complexities are contained within a constant coldness. Yet it works — not as a faithful reproduction of real life so much as a re-interpretation of Du Pont’s conduct that serves the film’s artistic intentions. This is not a man, this is a vampire. A billionaire, quixotic, extremely influential vampire. There must be others like him.

Self-effacingly venturous traits like that make Foxcatcher an astutely terrifying film, especially if you’re American and have to live with its insinuations. That it’s overall very successful at sustaining its hair-raising tone is a fortunate quality, too, because, putting aside its firm command of the basic elements of compelling fiction, this is a movie of multiple ambitions. It’s part character study, part social/cultural critique, part interpersonal drama, fluctuating between these three aptitudes almost experimentally. Miller and company always appear to know what they’re doing but sometimes they lead us to question what they’re doing it for — are they trying to conjure a meaningful fable of patriotic subversion? Are they mounting a showcase for the great trio of principal actors? Are they simply just trying to tell a story they thought was worth telling? The last hypothesis seems unlikely; as said before, there’s nothing starkly cinematic about the facts themselves, just the rather mundane saga of two very problematic men going head-to-head. If a movie was made out of this particular tale, it’s because somebody saw something worthy of attention beneath the surface, which brings me back to the possibility that Foxcatcher wants to be a capital-I Important movie. You know, about the perils of wealth and the psychology of combat sports and stuff like that.

If so, does it succeed? Partly; its ruminations are sometimes a little on-the-nose, and its concerns are never quite universal. As hard as everybody tries, this falls short of being a great film. Maybe it’s how opaque it is, maybe it’s the ambivalence of its driving purpose, maybe it’s the incomprehensibly shoddy makeup work done on Mark Ruffalo’s forehead. It’s not an easy movie to enjoy, respect or admire, not that it’s interested in being one. Just what it’s really interested in may be an even more absorbing question than the ones posed by the script, actually. Still, it’s very well-made, with scenes of reliable individual power and more than a few positively haunting moments. And as much as it may keep us guessing to the point of resisting analysis, it does leave at least three unequivocal legacies: first, it reminds the public of the huge talents of Tatum, Carell and Ruffalo, all three of whom have some trouble being taken seriously as actors. Second, it gives us a rare, attentive portrayal of an often-overlooked sport.

Third, and that’s what really justifies the movie’s existence regardless of quibbles, it’s an affecting, invaluable tribute to Dave Schultz, whose death exceeded any observations.


Boyhood (2014)



I began writing this review of Boyhood almost a month ago, but never got around to finishing it until now — half because the year-end surge of interesting DVD releases (a lot of great films don’t really make theaters in Brazil, mind you) has kept me busy, and half because it’s a tough task to write about this film in any capacity. Many, many movies and a whole month of festivities and resentments after seeing it, I still remember walking out of the theater in absolute awe, wondering how I would ever explain to my friends, or to anyone, just why they should go and see it when my unforgettable experience watching it was so connected with my own personal experiences. That’s the closest I can get to formulating a useful verdict about Boyhood, I think — it’s capable of connecting with viewers so much that it’s very hard, once you’ve seen it, to take a few steps back, objectively determine its worth as a piece of art, and make arguments for it or against it. Which then again, given its similarly affectionate response among critics and audiences in general, means it managed to fulfill one of the primary goals of artistic creation. But a film review can’t only consist of something so vague as “This is great art,” so you see why it took me so long to write all of this.

In other words: I loved Boyhood to a degree that I don’t think can be made explicit through words alone.

I would normally be wary of such hyperbole, but right now I’m more than willing to make an exception because this movie is really that good. It wasn’t just the best film I’ve seen all year; it was one of the best films I have ever seen, point-blank. Having watched it for the first time less than a month ago, I would gladly watch it again right now, were it not for the fact that I want to wait a few years before I see it anew. It is so absolutely amazing on so many levels that writing about it is, to add to my previous point, a simultaneously futile and necessary exercise; even with all the detachment in the world, it would still take me a hundred posts to really dig into its greatness, and yet I can never hope to write something truly complete about Boyhood because my perspective on it is surely going to shift over time. I suspect I’ll never not love it, though, and that’s why it’s necessary for me to write something. I am a teenager, after all. How I feel about this particular movie now may be more relevant than however else I ever feel about it.

Not that it isn’t universal, of course. It is very universal, its loose narrative progression so unconcerned with conventional plot formations that it’s literally not possible for me or anyone to provide a summary other than “the life of a young male and his family over 12 years.” I’m sure you’ve heard everything about it that has been said since it was released last summer — that it presents the highs and lows of life with immaculate sincerity, that it’s as deeply generous to its characters as you’d expect from director Richard Linklater, that it’s rich and groundbreaking enough to be called a landmark film. All of these things are true, and they’re not even getting into some of the film’s ancillary value. Boyhood is, for instance, the most intimate summation yet of the changes in American culture over the past decade, with a soundtrack that employs the likes of early Coldplay, Gnarls Barkley, Cobra Starship and Arcade Fire to mark the passage of time. (What a long way have we come from singing “Oops, I Did It Again” to annoy our younger siblings.) Its characters engage in impassioned discussions about politics, religion, and other pressing matters, and in doing so paint a historically valuable, human-sized picture of the big concerns of our turbulent days. Yet Boyhood is never really about these environmental modifications; the changes it cares for are personal, and they are what make this movie what it is.

But, like I just wrote, everything superlative that can be said about the enthralling humanity of Boyhood has been already said and re-said and countered and said again with a vengeance. I personally have no problem with adding my voice to the chorus of acclaim, but that would almost certainly feel redundant by this point, so what I will say is this: as someone who’s more-or-less in the middle of the strange curve usually chronicled by coming of age films, I thought Boyhood was one of the first films of that sort to really speak to me in a meaningful way. I don’t mean it elicits the “oh, this is so relatable” feel usually sought by “teen movies,” though it most certainly does, nor do I mean it’s filled to the brink with boldface lessons on growing up, though it occasionally offers up a few dashes of quiet wisdom (one particular line near the end has, in fact, stayed with me ever since I heard it). It spoke to me in the sense that it finally understood the tribulations of young age as opposed to just reproducing them from a distance, almost as if the scenes had been written by the titular boy himself just before they were shot. That unusual empathy, combined with Linklater’s self-evident skill as a mature storyteller, makes for the rare cinematic childhood/adolescence that feels lived rather than filmed, but at the same time considered rather than laid bare. A bad haircut, for instance, would be sitcom fodder elsewhere; here, it’s a disarmingly important dramatic moment, from which the writer/director and his wonderful lead Ellar Coltrane manage to extract more truth and heft than ten other coming of age flicks combined. It’s unusual for a relatively mainstream American movie to embrace that kind of naturalism, but if anybody was going to do it, thank god it was Richard Linklater.

This is where I have to acknowledge that of course my opinion on Boyhood is partial, because how else would I respond to this film, a film that focuses so sincerely and meaningfully on both my own demographic and the one I belonged to a few years ago, but with unbridled enthusiasm? Rest assured, however: it gets everybody right, not just the kids. In the rare occasions where it paints the adults with stronger, less natural colors — such as when a certain stepfather gets unexpectedly aggressive –, it does so in a continued effort to shape our hero Mason, Jr.’s worldview and advance his growth, and I can certainly not fault it for going that way one or two times when people act exaggeratedly and out of character in real life so often. Conversely, when it does take its time with Mason’s older influences, notably his hard-working mother and well-meaning father, the effect of watching them also grow from financially challenged young adults to the weary, altruistic variety of adults that reluctantly send their kids off to college is breathtaking, in no small part due to the brilliantly understated performances of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. They, too, unfold as people before our eyes, both in and out of the movie, as does Mason’s sister, as do his step siblings, as does his college girlfriend who appears only for a couple of scenes, as do even the somewhat peripheral stepparents. That’s all quite a feat when you stop to think that the movie is essentially one boy’s story from beginning to end.

You may have noticed, as I did just now, that, six paragraphs in, I have yet to mention the movie’s major technical innovation, the thing you remember when people tell you about it — and believe me, I haven’t been deliberately avoiding it. I hope that goes to showing that this movie is truly more than its so-called gimmick, even if I have to concede that it’s easy, even instinctive, to wonder how much of its success is attributable to the inevitable “wow” factor rather than the makers’ talent. Yes, the novelty of seeing the same actors play the same characters over a period of twelve years condensed into less than three swift hours would, by itself, provide us all with a unique cinematic experience, and I can’t say that accomplishment isn’t part of Boyhood‘s appeal. Of course it is. The lead actor all but doubles in height over the course of the movie — we have never seen anything quite like this in the history of film. That alone would make this a memorable venture even if the filmmaking itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy. And in all honesty, the story told in Boyhood also has the prior advantage of encompassing the very period of life that everybody agrees is most packed with twists and turns and dramatic changes in mind, body and soul: a film that focused on someone from, say, ages 35 to 47 might have been just as skillfully made, and would, of course, be fascinating in its own way, but it would probably not feel as epic as this one because look at how fast that effing kid is growing up. I get how those things can feel like an unfair head start — how could this movie not be striking? When it wins the Best Picture Oscar, the internet will be flooded with disparagers saying that everyone got carried away by the 12-year thing and that the movie would be nothing special without it.

For my part, I can only affirm it’s pointless to wonder whether this project would have been as winning in lesser hands, and more pointless still to try to distinguish between its concept and its workmanship — just as it was asinine last year to question Gravity‘s merit aside from the effects. The fact of the matter is that the idea behind Boyhood, to simply capture a boy growing into a man over a long time period and to do it as breathlessly up close as possible, is so good that it’s unbelievable nobody has tried it before, yet the execution of that exquisite concept is so accomplished that it actually makes us glad nobody has tried it but the people who did. Factor in the amount of things outside of anyone’s control that could have gone wrong in that risky 12-year production, and wow, this movie is a fucking miracle. I’m grateful to live in a world where it exists and I get to watch it, empathize with the people in it, be tenderly reminded of the deceptive simplicity of childhood and the overwhelming possibility of early adolescence, realize my sixteen-year-old self is still a long way from self-awareness, and somehow feel as though I myself have lived for twelve years in Texas as something more than a spectator. Boyhood is a work of art that taps into the ceaseless enchantment of life itself, and that’s why it’s going to be on our minds and in our hearts for a very, very long time.