LFF Spotlight: Foxcatcher

A confused and confusing genre mash-up.

For all its faults, Foxcatcher boasts incredible performances. [Property of Sony Pictures Classics]
For all its faults, Foxcatcher boasts incredible performances. [Property of Sony Pictures Classics]

I enjoyed Liberace and The Wrestler, but Foxcatcher‘s genre mash-up of the two is a tonal oddity.

Eccentric billionaire John E. Dupont (Carell) decides to coach and sponsor Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). A former Olympic gold medallist in wrestling and an isolated loner, Mark is at first intoxicated by the wealth and quirkiness of Du Pont who offers him glory and independence away from his coach brother. Mark has always struggled to forge an identity separate from his brother Dave Schultz (Mark Rufallo), a more emotionally intelligent and skilful wrestler.

Foxcatcher is a difficult film to engage with. Although director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) is rigorous in his depiction of the characters, we are never given an insight into their obviously fractured psyches. Instead we view them from afar – perhaps a correct vantage point given the social isolation of the two lead protagonists – but it also has a cumbersome pace, which by the end is frustrating instead of engrossing, as was presumably intended.

On the plus side, the acting is excellent. Rufallo again inhabits his role, showing us the intimacy of wrestling while Tatum shows us the aggression. Tatum’s Mark is a bumbling and undisciplined oaf without his brother and Tatum is thorough in his portrayal of Mark’s personal frustration with his inability to make his way without his more savvy brother.

It is also Carell’s first outing in a dramatic role since Little Miss Sunshine and he is almost unrecognisable, again demonstrating his versatility. It would be interesting to see if in the future Carell can turn his hand to characters that are not completely offbeat. But it is the offbeat Du Pont that is the centre of Foxcatcher. Carell’s delicate portrayal of Du Pont has the audience momentarily fooled – perhaps Du Pont has some self awareness that he plays up to be the character of a pompous, ridiculous rich man; however, as Du Pont’s behaviour becomes increasingly more erratic it is clear that this is a man with mental health issues rather than the mysterious genius that he attempts to present to the world.

If you come to the story blind, as I did, it’s hard to know what genre Foxcatcher fits into.  That it is not easily categorised is not immediately a negative characteristic, but neither is a genre-defying film. It’s just a bit messy. There are elements of a traditional sports film, and a drama, and a psychological thriller. It is these competing elements that will make this film hard to like for many.

It is at points excruciating to watch. Maybe it’s because no one likes to see an unstable millionaire being pandered to; or, alternately, the psychologically and emotionally vulnerable being taken advantage of, as Mark Shultz so clearly is.

In the end we are left wondering, what is there to learn from this film? It is more uncomfortable than entertaining. Why is it important that this story has made it to our screens? Another millionaire gone mad with narcotics and social isolation? Is the moral of the tale simply ‘don’t make friends with lonely old rich people’ – or is it that ‘bad things happen to good people’? Either way, despite some incredible performances, like the Schultz brothers I wish I had never gone to Foxcatcher ranch.




Feature Film: Salvo

An absorbing yet predictable crime drama from Sicily.

Saleh Bakri's hitman sees something he doesn't like. (Credit: Peccadillo)
Saleh Bakri’s hitman sees something he doesn’t like. (Credit: Peccadillo)

At first glance, it is tempting to slot Salvo in amongst the countless similar titles that adorn the shelves of any DVD rental shop. A Mafia hitman takes revenge on the assassin sent to kill him. During the process he encounters his target’s blind sister, whom he takes under his wing and who triggers a soulful, introspective transformation within the ruthless thug. At worst, it sounds like a concoction drawn from the myriad gangster films already out there – at best, it promises to be a derivative of John Woo’s The Killer and Ben Affleck’s The Town. However, a brief look at Salvo reveals the thing that sets it apart: bags of style.

Co-writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza grab the viewer’s attention with a slow, sensuous opening that artfully emphasises the importance of sight through intimate close-ups of eyes, mirrors and long, silent stretches of stalking tension. Many mob movies begin with a signature action sequence, but Salvo‘s opening act is a masterclass in generating high tension with wordless, understated action without gunfire, explosions or an army of henchmen. The culmination of this is a bold single-take sequence where our titular antihero infiltrates the home of his attempted murderer and encounters Rita, the woman who will change him. Unfortunately, as is often the case for debut directors, the rest of the film fails to live up to this bravura beginning.

That is not to say the film lacks strengths. The cast is undeniably good: in particular, star Saleh Bakri possesses the kind of brooding persona that works, lending Salvo a fascinating presence that keeps us involved even as he causes great pain to the much more sympathetic Rita. As the blind victim caught in a Mafia conflict, Sara Serraiocco is excellent – hopefully we will be seeing more of her in the near future. Such good casting and performances combine with the artfully langorous style to suggest Grassadonia and Piazza are a talented team with great potential. Unfortunately, Salvo simply does not have enough story to support itself after the striking opening sequences, and its origins as a short film (called Rita) begin to expose themselves. Most regrettably, by the time the inevitable ending has occurred and the credits scroll it is hard to shake the feeling that the directors’ deliberately long takes are a way of padding an already short film.

Therefore, Salvo is worth watching if you are a fan of the genre and a keen buff of festival successes; for everyone else, wait until the talents behind and in front of Salvo‘s cameras have meatier material to present. They have great potential.

 

Salvo is available on DVD and VOD from 29th September.

DVD extras include a 19-minute b-roll featurette and interviews with the cast and crew.