By Marshall Shaffer
Editor’s Note: On Thursday morning “Whiplash” received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Editing, Sound Mixing, and Best Supporting Actor (JK Simmons). “Foxcatcher” received nominations for Best Director, Writing, Make-up, Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo) and Best Actor (Steve Carell). Friday both films open at a/perture Cinemas downtown. You can find showtimes and tickets HERE.
While the film “Whiplash” is about drumming and jazz music, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s intense focus on the physical demands of training and competition essentially transforms art into athletics. The story follows Miles Teller’s Andrew as he goes through the music conservatory training process, both honing his craft and advancing through the studio ranks. Andrew aims for nothing short of becoming one of the all-time great drummers, and the quest quite literally claims blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
Chazelle’s filmmaking captures the coexisting violence and agility of drumming with the same sort of madcap, fast-paced artistry. “Whiplash” probably has the average shot length of a Marvel film, although these fast and furious edits are actually deployed to induce a physiological effect. Chazelle conducts a cinematic symphony in his quick cutting of extreme close-up shots, cerebrally conveying just how many moving parts have to synchronize in order to create stirring music.
“Whiplash” is hardly a concert film, however, and much of the momentum of these extended bravura sequences comes from attention to and investment in the story and characters. Chazelle’s script keeps an even keel even with its fairly rapid succession of events, largely stemming from its streamlined attention on Andrew’s quest for musical brilliance. (Seriously, any more obsessed and he might turn into a swan.) Even his romantic interest, which seems like a pleasant diversion when first introduced into the film, serves its purpose in advancing Andrew’s plot arc.
Where the story starts to get really interesting, though, is when J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher enters the mix. He serves as instructor and conductor at Shaffer Conservatory but is probably more akin to a coach. Imagine the most stern, demanding teacher who has ever pushed you to take your talents further … and then notch up the profanity and sadism while throwing ethical caution to the wind. Simmons embodies the smugly self-assured exactitude of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada” in the imposing figure of R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman from “Full Metal Jacket.” In other words, he is absolutely terrifying.
Yet as scary as Fletcher’s drilling techniques are, there is clearly a method to his madness. Nowhere in Chazelle’s characterization or Simmons’ performance does stereotype steer him into purposeless histrionics. Even though his approach can be cruel, Fletcher does want to help his art by unlocking the potential inside the next great jazz drummer; he does not think participation medals and encouraging pats on the back will do the trick. “Whiplash” neither discredits nor vindicates his strategies. Chazelle simply provides a fascinating figure inside an equally enthralling film, daring all those who approach it to think critically and feel viscerally.
In the opening minutes of “Foxcatcher,” a quietly quotidian montage details the routine of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, a wrestler living and training modestly in spite of winning gold at the 1984 Olympic Games. The sequence concludes with him stepping behind a podium to address a less than captivated audience of elementary school students, and he begins with the line, “I want to talk about America.”
This opening remark appears to be a harbinger portending a film where director Bennett Miller will talk at us about America. Ramming any sort of message down our throats, however, seems the last thing on Miller’s mind. The deliberately paced and masterfully moody “Foxcatcher” provides a trove of discussion-worthy material about the dark underbelly of the world’s most powerful nation. What Miller actually wants is to talk with us about America.
Miller works deftly within the framework of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script, which itself feels beholden to no convention or genre. They slowly parse out information on the characters of the film, providing disturbing details and abnormal actions that do not lend themselves to easy explanation. “Foxcatcher” thrives on small moments that do not seem incredibly consequential as they occur, though their cumulative effect is quite the knockout.
The film crafted by Miller is not one of conventional capital-A “Acting.” It’s performance as being, not as much doing. While the talented trifecta of Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo still has plenty of events to live out, they function best as the shiniest components of a larger tonal machine. Miller expertly employs them to highlight the sinister undercurrents running beneath the eerie, brooding surface of “Foxcatcher.”
His proclivity for cutaways and long-held takes has a tendency to turn the characters into specimens, but such an approach also solicits active examination. The film’s co-leads, Tatum and Carell, each carry themselves in an unconventional, magnified manner that invites peering past their appearances. What lurks beneath are truly tormented men, each seeking a symbolic meaning system to bring them fulfillment.
Tatum makes his Mark Schultz practically ape-like with a big, protruded chin. As a muscled hulk of an sportsman, it might be tempting to let the physicality purely define this character – or even worse, hide behind the stereotype of the dumb jock. Tatum takes those expectations, however, and hurls them out the window. In Schultz’s borderline primal utterances and motions, a world of inner confusion and frustration shines through, forcing a serious reevaluation of not only the character but also of Tatum as a serious actor.
The same could also be said for Steve Carell as John du Pont. The performance would still be chilling to the bone even without knowing it directly flies in the face of his comedic bona fides. Miller often trains his camera to rest on Carell’s gaze for long stretches of time, maintaining a deeply unsettling and discomforting lock on the frightening stillness of his eyes. These haunting glances alone give “Foxcatcher” a palpable sense of volatility.
Yet Carell’s du Pont goes far beyond just observed placidity; the “Golden Eagle,” as he calls himself, is also a soft-spoken man who ironically trades in mythological sayings. Since he comes from a great deal of old family wealth, DuPont has the means to play out his wild fantasies. He earnestly believes in achieving such grandiose visions such as “giving men a dream” and “giving America hope.”
Flowing from these hopes, du Pont decides to patronize the American Olympic wrestling squad, moving Schultz and the rest of his teammates to a facility at his own Foxcatcher farms. In one sense, it is merely the latest pet project for the man who also dabbles in ornithology and philately. He desperately seeks the attention and approval of his aging mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) with his newest passion, but she sneers at the sport’s unbecoming brutality.
du Pont suffers from more than just classic Oedipal issues, though. “Foxcatcher” explores his complicated psychology from a number of different angles, looking at the relationship with Schultz as paternal, patriotic, friendly, and perhaps even sexual on a very submerged level. The presence of Mark’s brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), exacerbates the tensions by serving as a competitor against Mark in the wrestling ring and for Mark outside of it.
Although his role is often in question to the characters in the film, David does provide what might be the only morsel of humanity for the audience in “Foxcatcher.” He’s the only person clearly meant to be sympathetic, a function Ruffalo dutifully fulfills. Apart from him, Bennett Miller’s film is rather emotionally distant. But in a film about such large concepts as leadership and American identity, his technically precise deployment of style and mood to tell the story strikes just the right chord.
The gloomy, pensive atmosphere pervades every frame and does not clear up when the credits roll. Instead, it packs up and leaves with the viewer.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. You can read more of his reviews HERE.