Dark, bleak and still. These are three words that categorize the feeling that permeates Foxcatcher. I would be hard-pressed to say people would “enjoy” this film in the classical sense. Despite the fact that both main characters, Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), have won Olympic gold medals for wrestling they seem quietly reserved and sort of sad. And that’s basically how the film makes you feel.
They wordlessly go through their training exercises, and Mark, in particular, seems to do nothing but sit around wait for the next training session. At least, that’s what we’re shown. That is, until he meets John du Pont (Steve Carell), the filthy rich oddity that causes the lives of these two brothers to change forever. The film at first gives you the sense that it’s about Mark’s journey back to the Olympic podium, but really it’s about the pairing of the Schultz family with the du Pont world and what becomes of the two of them as a result. It is safe to say neither family will be the same by the end, especially if you know the facts of the actual events this film is based on.
Mark and John are presented as similar people: Mark trains as a wrestler as a way of impressing while separating himself from his older bother, meanwhile John focuses his attention on becoming something his disapproving mother never allowed him to be and something he never had; an athlete and a father-figure. The thematic tension lies in the struggle between their internal similarities and their external differences. Both men wish to be their own man. Mark has the physique and the freedom (no attachments) to be an Olympic champion. While John lacks these qualities, he has the means and the power to attain his goals. The way the two characters play off each other is basically the story.
There is a permeating sense of dread throughout the film, which is embodied in the character of John and played patiently creepy by Carell. There is never a moment between John and the Schultz’s where you feel John isn’t a predator of some sort, and perhaps that comes partially from Carell’s “Hannibal Lector”-esque performance and partially from the way rich people are generally portrayed in film. We’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of movies that center around the rich being naughty with their wealth and sophistication. I think it’s worth pointing out that du Pont isn’t evil simply because he’s rich, but rather because of his upbringing. There are a few scenes where he interacts with his mother, including one particular non-verbal interaction that tells a bigger part of their history, that basically reduce him to a child seeking his mother’s approval. This is much the same way Mark seeks the approval of his brother while simultaneously wishing to be his own person.
This psychological angle is the strength of that one character and the weakness of the rest, as there are really only two characters with any depth. Tatum plays Mark as a one-note, somber child waiting to throw a tantrum. He is a child who is physically able to act-out, but rarely does, instead choosing to brood and pout in his room with his toys. There is also a team of wrestler’s that assemble on the du Pont residence that somewhat resemble a stable of horses, which is a common metaphor shown in several places during the film, but are not shown as real people. David is the only character other than John that has a multi-dimensional motivation, as he is a family man and he wishes to help his brother on top of honoring his employer.
Again, it’s tough to say I “enjoyed” this movie as much as I would say it was a decently compelling story that’s driven by Carell’s performance and the character of John du Pont. If director Bennett Miller had fleshed out the rest of the cast it would be a better watch, but it’s still a solid movie soaked in dread and bleakness. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
It’s pretty rare that we experience a movie with a singular narrative, devoid of subplots and ancillary characters. Screenwriting generally involves an intricate layering of characters and stories, all with their own motivations and narrative arcs that unfold throughout the film’s running time. Whiplash is that rare film that excises the outer rings of story and focuses on one thing and one thing alone: the price of excellence.
There are two main performances in the film, the student (Miles Teller) and the teacher (J.K. Simmons), both of which are exceptional. This plays into the wall-eye vision of the film, utilizing a bare-bones number of characters. It is protagonist versus antagonist in the truest form. The student only wishes to be great; to be the greatest jazz drummer of all time. The teacher wishes to push the student to a level beyond what he feels is “greatness”; to transcendence.
In noting the myopic scope of the film, it is worth paying attention not only to the narrative focus but also the aesthetic focus. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle employs an amplified single plane of focus throughout the film that aids the theme. This means that you may notice several scenes where a character or an object, be it in the foreground or the background, will be in extreme focus while the opposite plane will be completely blurred. In essence, you will notice the world around the character or object but you can only clearly see the object in focus. Much like the main characters, your mind can only focus on one single thing. This aesthetic, which usually goes unnoticed but still affects the unconscious viewing experience, is another component that adds to the overall composition, and it is a pretty impressive feat. I love when the aesthetic of the film serves the text. It is pretty rare these days.
I realize I’m sounding a bit textual and theoretical here, but I still feel it is worth noting in case you watch the film a second time.
Anywho……I also think it’s worth noting how compelling this story is because of these combined elements, and what an interesting experiment it is to compare this movie to the average film viewing experience. The film has a moderately short running time (107 minutes) yet it tells a complete story and contains compelling subject matter despite telling only one story and featuring only two main characters. Think of how many films you’ve seen with a similar running time, or those that run longer. These films are often bogged down with expository scenes and peripheral characters and subplots that generally derail the overall product. Whiplash features none of these elements, preferring to strip the conventional film form down to its necessities. No filler.
I think it goes without saying that the music is top-notch. I think even if you don’t enjoy jazz you will get a better sense of the great artistry of this musical genre.
For my buck, the most interesting aspect of the film is the thematic outcome of the story. The narrative begs the questions “How far will you go to achieve greatness? What price are you willing to pay?” I think the best part is that the film does not answer these questions, but instead asks “Is it worth it?” The characters perform their duties in the philosophical debate, but the film ambiguously displays the results, instead leaving the outcome up to each viewer. There are few scenes of exposition, outside of two scenes that explain character motivation that are placed at pivotal times during the film. The climax is one of the most exhilarating scenes you will ever see in film, and yet barely a word is spoken.
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to watch a film build tension and character to an absolute crescendo and then allow it to unfold in a series of images that speak louder than any monologue or fight or argument could ever achieve. This film is an exercise in simplicity that achieves a level of complexity few films ever attain.