Part two in a series examining the biggest contenders for the 87th Academy Awards
Film awards season is as much about campaigning and industry politicking as it is the artistic achievements. And there is nothing more damaging to a successful Oscar campaign than an all-out attack against the film. It’s even worse if it comes from someone with a direct investment in the film, say, a film’s subject. One ill-timed social media meltdown can turn a serious Oscar contender into a virtual shutout with ease.
That seems to be the case with Foxcatcher and Mark Schultz, the lone survivor of the film’s three main characters. Foxcatcher recounts Mark and his brother Dave’s time with John du Pont, the eccentric billionaire obsessed with American wrestling and bringing home an Olympic gold medal. It was an obsession that cost Dave Schultz his life, when du Pont fatally shot him in 1995. The film mostly looks at the years before that tragic day, focusing on the period before the 1988 Summer Olympics. In the film, Mark is a man without direction, lost in his more popular brother’s shadow. He is effectively preyed upon by du Pont, who promises a restoration of American values and glory to his name. Those promises quickly collapse into a toxic, twisted relationship with sexual inferences.
This depiction might’ve struck a chord with Schultz, who went on a social media tirade last month against the film and its director Bennett Miller. He would later explain that he felt the film and its reviews discussing the sexual inferences were jeopardizing his legacy. Although he has since apologized, even expressing love for the film, the damage was done. Foxcatcher received five Oscar nominations, but not for Best Picture. While disappointing to fans of the film and its makers, it’s might not be that surprising. In fact, it might have been expected.
Mark Schultz’s bizarre smears were the final wheel falling off a campaign that lost serious momentum in the last months leading to the Oscar nominations. Originally a critical darling during festival season, the film was met with mixed reviews upon release, with some calling the film gloomy, lifeless, even a sick joke. Universal acclaim was heaped upon Steve Carrell for his against-type, transformative performance, but with Jake Gyllenhaal and David Oyelowo capturing much of the attention in a seriously crowded Best Actor race, there were some suggestions that even Carrell might lose out on a nomination. Schultz’s timing couldn’t be worse for a film that was, at one time, expected to sweep the nominations and win.
Foxcatcher is certainly a dark, bleak film, but that doesn’t make it unworthy. It is, after all, about a senseless tragedy and the lead up to it. What’s disappointing is how little the film has to say about John du Pont and his psychology, beyond his textbook narcissistic sociopathy. There are plenty of scenes showcasing du Pont as a very small man with grand delusions, but little about what could be the cause. Mark Schultz is also lazily sketched; his aimlessness and depression is clear, but why? It would’ve been great to know why and how Mark could’ve been so easily manipulated by du Pont’s insanity. The film doesn’t strive to take its characters or culture to task, which makes it repetitive and dull at times. There are some moments that crackle with energy, but they are few. It’s interesting to know that the film was initially four hours long; it could’ve been even shorter than its final cut.
As is becoming a recurring theme this season, Foxcatcher is really a movie of excellent performances, instead of deep or innovative storytelling. Steve Carrell is bone-chilling as du Pont, not only unrecognizable as the beloved The Office star but thoroughly uncomfortable to look or hear, even in the lighter moments (of which there are few). Carrell’s performance is a masterclass of how to portray personality disorder, mental illness, and the evil that it can birth. Mark Ruffalo, playing the tragic Dave Schultz, is the film’s heart, providing a tender, sensitive humanity that keeps it from being completely maudlin. Channing Tatum, as Mark Schultz, has been woefully underrated. Carrell is a revelation and very deserving, and the Best Actor category is packed enough as it is, but Tatum did excellent work, easily his career best, that is worthy of notice. He is a man with immense power but crippling self-esteem issues, crackling with borderline-violent rage and visceral pain that is aching to be explored further. Some of his best moments are with Ruffalo, where he actively seeks Dave’s self-assured warmth, and it makes you wish there were more of them. That would’ve given the film some much-appreciated pathos.
Considering the types of films that are nominated for Best Picture, Foxcatcher is quite the snub. It is another biographical drama that fall short of offering an unexpected revelation about its subjects, but it is excellently crafted and acted. It falls well in line with The Imitation Game and Theory of Everything, but doesn’t stand with them in that key category. It’s possible that Oscar voters were turned off by the tone, which might have been too dark. Or, Mark Schultz may have done the film in with his ill-timed ravings, leaving voters uncomfortable with honoring a film that was so disagreeable with the man whose life it was based on. Either way, after seeing it for myself, Foxcatcher definitely deserved a place in the Best Picture race.
Coming up in the series: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, and more. Until then, please share your thoughts in the comments!