Prior to this year’s Cannes Film Festival the director Bennett Miller asserted himself as a major, stealthy talent attuned to minor-key, observant portraits of American success stories with an asterisk, a hidden price tag.
Miller followed his first narrative feature, “Capote,” with “Moneyball.” While “Capote” showcased an utterly transformed Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, “Moneyball” starred Brad Pitt in a comfortable, easygoing dramatic stretch as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. The result was an improbably good story about metrics and statistics and diminished bottom lines.
Now comes a third true story, “Foxcatcher,” the new darling of the 2014 Cannes festival.
If the rivers of opinion washing along the Croisette following the 8:30 a.m. press screening are reliable, director Miller’s latest is destined for awards here and Academy Award nominations aplenty in early 2015, most certainly for Steve Carell as billionaire chemical fortune heir and fatally obsessive wrestling enthusiast John du Pont.
On his 800-acre estate not far from Valley Forge, du Pont built a private training center for pentathletes, swimmers and wrestlers with an eye toward leading the U.S. Olympic wrestling team to glory and thereby restoring his nation’s greatness. This superpatriot of many enthusiasms – birds, stamps, guns, cocaine – recruited two-time world champion freestyle wrestler and Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz along with his medalist brother, Dave.
Mark, used to living in the shadow of more gregarious sibling, seized on du Pont as a benevolent father figure and fellow outsider. How du Pont came to gun down Schultz’s brother in cold blood is the narrative through-line of “Foxcatcher.” True to form, Miller (working with a script by “Capote” writer Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye) leaves specific, reductive motives in the shadows, opting instead for a grey-toned atmosphere of impossible wealth, corroded American ideals and a calm, patient, occasionally static sense of accumulating dread.
I’m still puzzling through why, on a first viewing, “Foxcatcher” strikes me as less wholly successful than Miller’s previous films. The cool, considered atmosphere of “Capote” and “Moneyball” seems more studied here, and the rhythm occasionally slackens. (This one simmered a long time in the editing phase.) But the director is surely one of the best in America today, and producer Megan Ellison – a billionaire heiress herself, no stranger to passion projects, though more fruitful ones than du Pont's – is creating a proud track record of supporting many of contemporary cinema’s most vital talents, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Bennett Miller.
The press conference following this morning’s “Foxcatcher” screening brought “bravo!”s and spontaneous applause from the typically jaded and oh-whatever international press corps. Carell and Miller were joined by Ellison, and by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who play the Schultz brothers. As in “Capote” and “Moneyball,” Miller said, “Foxcatcher” isn’t afraid of the contemplative moments before and after the moments usually emphasized in commercial filmmaking, particularly in biopics.
“There’s a lot of American male repressed non-communication happening in this story,” Miller said, adding that he’s not “so much telling a story as observing a story -- what’s happening beneath the story.”
Tatum and Ruffalo are well cast and fully plausible as wrestlers and sometimes contentious brothers. The casting of Carell is more of a surprise, and a successful one. Outfitted with a prosthetic nose, Carell catches du Pont’s distinctively louche vocal cadence, his imperious “lost boy” gaze. He had all the neuroses money could buy, the film implies, though Miller was quick Monday to assert that “Foxcatcher” is “not a polemical film and does not take a moral position.”
Ruffalo politely disagreed, sounding like a man of conscience delivering a monologue from a Clifford Odets play. “There is a moral thrust to the story, a Greek tragedy buried inside it. What happens when everything has a price tag on it? What happens when everything is for sale? What happens to talent when it can be acquired for a price? And what happens to people in a system that values almost everything at a price?”
Gary Oldman was rumored at one time for the role of du Pont. It’s likely he would’ve given him a more pronounced edge of sociopathology. By contrast Carell’s portrayal, the one we have, is dryly non-judgmental in its depiction of a sad, pampered scion looking to make his mark. “Characters in films don’t know whether they’re in a comedy or a drama,” Carell said of his oblique angle on du Pont. Or as Miller said to one interviewer prior to Cannes: The true story of “Foxcatcher” is weirdly funny. Until it isn’t.
The film opens mid-November in America.Copyright © 2015, RedEye