Foxcatcher/Whiplash

I may boast of my aversion to the mainstream but do I ever really escape it, or is it like Christopher Marlowe said: ‘Where we are is the mainstream and the mainstream is where we ever are’? (OK, he was talking about Hell but it’s the same idea.)

I have been slightly surprised to find myself going – of my own volition – to see films that have been cropping up in the awards listings. It’s almost like being a film critic. Naturally I feel a responsibility to dismiss these films as overblown underthought nonsense but I still have to admit that a lot of money has been spent on them and also that they are interesting to me personally. Obviously a single film entitled Foxcatcher Whiplash would have been an even more exciting prospect than the two separate projects which have reached our screens – all the more exciting because I have no idea what it would have been about, it just sounds so good. But there is such a thing as too much excitement.

Mind you, the prospect of a joint sequel is surely not out of the question. Both films are about coaching in their different ways. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher has down-at-heel ex-Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) leading a drab solitary existence giving talks to schools who have mistaken him for his more charismatic brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). He is whisked away from all this by billionnaire John DuPont (Steve Carrell), who wants Schultz to supervise a training camp on his roomy estate. The rich, it transpires, are different, and DuPont – coolly remote, socially awkward and, as it turns out, psychotic – is so very different he might as well be one of David Icke’s alien lizards.

This difference gives rise to some amusing moments as Mark arrives at DuPont’s estate expecting to be greeted by the man himself only to be shunted off into the hands of staff, who show him to his chalet, hand him a DVD of DuPont family history and warn him that the horses outside are ‘off-limits’. Gradually, however, Schultz and DuPont bond over cocaine, DuPont’s vision of America and a shared lack of social skills, only for DuPont to turn against him one day and bring his brother in, a move which eventually leads (along the obscure tunnels of derangement boring their way through DuPont’s brain) to tragedy.

There’s a lot to recommend here but just because something is a true story, that doesn’t mean there’s any need to tell it. While Foxcatcher is very watchable, I often found myself urging it to get to the point, and it never quite does. What with DuPont’s lack of affect and Mark Schultz’s sullenness, I felt stuck for a way in emotionally, and the final act of violence seemed almost as random as if we’d never been introduced to DuPont in the first place. The posters call this a ‘psychological thriller’ but that’s only true in the sense that you need to imagine the thrills – a task I proved unequal to.

A better description would be ‘elegiac sports drama’ but there isn’t much call for these. The film is also about America in the way that John DuPont makes his own project about America – Olympic wrestling as a means of restoring national pride. Foxcatcher is, then a well-made but dreary corrective to such notions. The performances are fine, though at times it does feel that the real struggle in the film is between Steve Carrell and his false nose; he often comes out on top though. Whether DuPont’s particular brand of insanity tells us anything about American society at large is another question – though his enthusiasm for (and ability to purchase) rocket launchers is obviously a worry.

I suppose Foxcatcher is ultimately about men and masculinity – DuPont is desperate to prove his masculinity to his drily disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave), Mark Schultz has relied on his brother in the absence of a father, and only Dave Schultz seems undamaged, and look what happens to him. Wrestling in all its homoerotic glory is a good metaphor for this, though not, it turns out, quite as effective as jazz drumming.

Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash – also unafraid to tackle the topic of white men and their psychological problems – is by far the more successful film in terms of narrative drive and emotional engagement. Miles Teller plays Andrew, an aspiring jazz-drummer who happily falls into the hands of conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the kind of teacher who advises new recruits to just relax and be themselves, then creates an atmosphere wherein students routinely leave the room crying and bleeding. Fletcher’s argument is that only this kind of severity breeds greatness, and Andrew – a very serious young man – falls for this hook line and sinker, even giving up his girlfriend so that he can concentrate on becoming the next Buddy Rich.

More like a drill instructor than a conductor, Fletcher is big on humiliation, even slapping Andrew at one point. Some commentators have gone so far as suggest that there might be better ways of bringing out the best in people than by slapping them in the face and hurling homophobic abuse at them. Ha! Where are they living? Fairyland?

In fact it’s the film that’s living in Fairyland – a fairyland where homosexuality doesn’t exist. Fletcher’s fondness for calling his musicians ‘fucking faggots’ seems rather quaint in its failure to acknowledge that some of these young men seeking a career in the performing arts might actually be gay and – since this isn’t the 50’s – unapologetically so (as for women, well I don’t remember seeing any). Neither is Fletcher a wholly consistent character – hard to imagine such a perfectionist sabotaging one of his own performances simply in order to humiliate Andrew, as happens towards the end. So from a realistic standpoint, this probably is overblown nonsense. But it succeeds because of its focus on the central relationship, in which the denial of any possibility of easy intimacy between men is part of the dynamic.

Whiplash never resolves the question of whether Fletcher is an inspired teacher or an abusive monster but keeps it in play throughout. With Teller and Simmons giving their all, this has far more cause than Foxcatcher to promote itself as a psychological thriller, even if it does end with an extended drum solo.

At the end, as Fletcher presides over Andrew’s unscheduled onstage improvisation, the camera focuses tightly on Teller and Simmons, excluding the audience, and it’s left to us to decide whether we are witnessing a young man ‘achieving greatness’ or some sado-masochistic folie a deux. In that uncertainty lies a tension which Foxcatcher – whose big dreams are transparently doomed to disaster from the start – conspicuously lacks.

Still – the mainstream: possibly worth seeking out. Especially if you like men.

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