Get Out (2017), the most hyped horror release of the year, emanates from an unlikely source – Jordan Peele of Key and Peele sketch comedy fame. On the basis of this first directorial effort, even though he initially seemed like an unlikely horror maestro, let’s hope he has a bunch more ideas stashed away because I want to see them all.
Peele has talked of being a horror fan and you can see the affection for the genre early on. A bunch of clever allusions to classic horror plant the seeds beautifully for what is to come – the unfriendliness of suburbia, a boarded up basement, psychologists with ominous skills. The film also uses (very clever) jump scares early on to put the viewer firmly on edge. This is very effective because even the ‘straight’ plot that unfurls early still just feels a little off. Adding in these sharp moments of terror only emphasises that feeling. But for all this riffing, the romantic weekend away to meet your girlfriend’s parents feels like a unique setup. Especially given how genuine the relationship between the two leads feels. And the traditional family history aspect to the film’s setup is given a wrinkle when a family anecdote about a beloved grandfather being beaten by an African American sprinter is recalled. The nature of the threat in the film evolves and escalates from a feeling of not being quite welcome, to more overt forms of mental and physical control.
Someone on my facebook posted that they were now scared of white people after watching Get Out. After my initial shock that this person was only now becoming scared of white people, I began to feel that it was a pretty decent distillation of the movie’s thematic concerns. Or concern, because racism (though different dimensions of it) is really the full focus of what is taking place, and there is a whole lot to break down on that level. Peele examines racism in the film in both subtle and more obvious ways. Which is not to say the latter are bad in any way. One of the film’s best sequences is where the film quite directly invokes notions of African Americans being property and the way that racist mindset classically manifested itself. Even just from an optics point of view, the film abounds in scenes of many white people in the frame with a single African American person. In addition, the intersection of class with racism is a focus as the film takes place in a very upper class environment. Here Peele skewers the notion of reverse racism with the most privileged lamenting some perceived physical or societal advantage being held by people of colour generally. The film never stops to make any of these points, nor does Peele needlessly draw attention to them. They are not hidden away but are organic to the story, and frankly organic enough to contemporary society that they never jar.
So much of what Get Out does well is as a result of the script, which juggles a lot of different elements very well. The racial themes are incorporated into and reflected by the plot. And it also brings to life both very grounded and quite supernatural forms of horror, without either jarring. Unsurprisingly the film uses humour well, with some very funny moments lightening the mood but never undermining it or the very real horrors of the film. There’s lots of humour but the film is in no way a comedy. Peele is adept enough behind the camera to scare the viewer in different ways – slow creepiness and visceral fast jump scares accompanied by a burst of noise. Both of these scared the shit out of me at different times, usually accompanied by the incredible atmosphere of the score, which is adept at accentuating the two very different types of horror. The performances across the board are excellent, especially from the leads Daniel Kaluuya and Alison Williams, as well as LilRel Howery as a comedy relief TSA agent. In addition to those, Catherin Keener and Bradley Whitford pull off tricky, key supporting roles as Williams’ Rose’s parents really well.
Verdict: This is an incredible film. A thematically rich riff on classic horror from a voice that feels totally new. It’s also fuckin terrifying, always a good selling point for a horror flick. It’s also one of the first screenings I attended where there was a genuine spontaneous outburst of applause during the film, which was very well earned. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
There are various levels to the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock. The all-time classics everyone has heard of. The Hollywood stylistic experiments. His early formative British and silent work. But perhaps the most enjoyable of these groups to discover as a film buff are the ones not all that many speak about, but that are equally as brilliant to that first group. In my experience they are his best, most pure in genre terms thrillers. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is one, and happens to be my favourite of his films. And now to that I would add Strangers on a Train (1951), which if it doesn’t quite match that film for me, it manages to pack maybe the best character and best sequence of the director’s career into one film.
Perhaps equalled only by Psycho (1960) in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, this is a quite nasty film. There’s some fuckin menace bubbling along just below the surface. In perhaps the most brilliant sequence of his career, a tense and totally brutal murder takes place at a carnival. This follows a chase with all of Hitch’s hallmarks. The shadows and sounds of the tunnel of love as well as the bluster and bravado of the murderer on a test of strength, just feel so distinctly him. If it sounds utterly all over the shop and out there, it is. I’m not sure any other director could have made it work. The plot carries on, the characters swirling around one another. Hitchcock shows us he is able to elicit incredible tension, just through the length of a tennis match. The events come to a head back at the carnival from earlier in the film. This whole end sequence, sort of sums up his reputation for me. A wildly fun and crowd pleasing denouement to a perfectly, artistically constructed tense thriller. Without giving anything away, it mainly goes down on a carousel, a structure of fun taking on malevolent overtones in a stark way.
Strangers on a Train stands as a monument to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a storyteller. From the very start where our ‘strangers’ are identified only by their feet, the film almost overflows with creativity. But in a highly controlled manner, as Hitch is able to harness his highly original approach in a way that serves story above all else. There is something chilling about the psychological edges of the characters in the film, most notably Bruno. So much of the character comes from the great performance by Robert Walker. Something off with him from the get-go, his unsettling obsession with “people who do things”. The witty and quite modern script, the way Bruno helps a blind man cross the road, gives him psychopathic tendencies that feel both real and harrowing. The plotting of the film hangs off this character too, based around how each character will react to his manipulation. Just as the first trip to the carnival is maybe Hitchcock’s best sequence, Bruno is maybe his best character. Also excellent is Farley Granger, playing the charming tennis player Guy well out of his depth. He almost functions as a measure of normality to consider Walker’s Bruno against.
Verdict: Strangers on a Train is a legit classic Hollywood thriller and sees Hitchcock at the absolute peak of his creative powers. Anchored by a couple of very good performances, the plot gets you so invested in events it will leave you wanting to yell at the screen (or in my case, actually yelling at the screen). Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Like everyone who saw it, I was a huge fan of the first season of Rick and Morty. However the busy Dan Harmon and crew would leave us all hanging for a couple of years until they got around to delivering Season 2. Thankfully the wait was more than worth it.
The first season of the show embraced the concept of a foul-mouthed animated Back to the Future (1985) featuring the drunk, obnoxious super-scientist Rick and his grandson Morty full-tilt. The second season continues that with more space-based adventures, here delving into a multiuverse style concept that I don’t recall being so prominent in the earlier season. But it also does a whole lot more. Much of it hinges on Rick, for me already one of the greatest TV characters ever, and his blend of crassness and genius, as well as how Morty interacts with that. The latter is now showing shades of world-weariness to go along with the wide-eyed wonder of new worlds opening up to him that we saw in the first season. Rick is just utterly laugh-out-loud though, episodes such as the one focusing on Tiny Rick had me legitimately crying with laughter. One thing this show does that very few others attempt, let alone succeed at, is to blend silliness and seriousness. Some episodes are more uniformly one rather than the other. But most of the time the show blends the two in a way that really shouldn’t work, but the exceptional writing ensures it does. The show also pushes boundaries in terms of just how dark humour can be, mining some exceptionally grim sources for laughs. Though there is just as much silliness delivering laughs as well. A fair amount of my note-taking boiled down to recording zingers such as ‘Couchferatu’.
In many ways this feels like a culmination of all adult-focused TV animated comedy that has come before. There is the crassness of South Park, but here it rarely feels like simplistic blunt attempts to shock. It riffs on the same episode setup as The Simpsons, where often what the first five minutes of the episode is not at all what the rest is about, but here that often spirals out into absurdist realms. But where this takes the form somewhere new is that this is a challenging show in a totally different way to the others mentioned. Dense sci-fi ideas touched upon in Futurama are here taken to mind-boggling ends. These, and other aspects of the show, challenge viewers regarding what it means to be human and what it means to be a good one, Notions only flirted with in the most superficial way by these other shows. The ambition level is so high on some episodes that I think repeat viewings will be rewarded to help take some of it in. There is sort of a trade-off at play here. The more ambitious stuff is often the least funny. And occasionally the show becomes a little too intense, undermining enjoyment of individual episodes. But frankly it is genuinely beautiful and challenging in a way that elevates the whole show in any case.
Verdict: Crass, well written, geeky, self-referential, tapped into pop culture and fuckin funny. If that sounds like your thing then this season of Rick and Morty certainly won’t disappoint. Brilliant. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Pier Paolo Pasolini is an interesting dude. Actually that’s underselling it greatly. Pasolini may be the most interesting dude in cinema’s history. And perhaps the most interesting thing this gay, Marxist, atheist artist ever did, was make The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), the definite cinematic account of the life of Jesus.
In terms of construction, the reverence that Pasolini has for the gospel as a piece of literature, makes the film play like a Shakespeare adaptation. There’s a faithfulness to the dialogue that initially jars, but quickly comforts the viewer through its familiarity and artfulness. The film is solemn and artistic, wordlessly creating a weight to moments, emotions and words that you can feel. The film opens on a close-up of the pregnant Mary’s face, centring her and the human, not deified, aspects of the birth of Jesus. The film is sparse in terms of exposition, presumably relying on the general familiarity with the source material. The story progresses almost as a montage of his greatest speeches for a time, effectively and rapidly establishing Jesus’ wisdom. The films builds through these speeches, with the words gaining more power and weight as the narrative goes along. There is an interesting lack of miracles or God in the film, rather casting Jesus in an interesting light. He talks of pitting family members against each other, while the scenes of him throwing down with the orthodoxy are the best of all. The film pulls no punches either in its approach. Both to paint a portrait of Jesus that is perhaps not what is expected, and in presenting the reality of the world as it was. There is an infanticide scene in particular that is very tough going. Overall there is a power to imagery and silence in the film. The wordless power of the crucifixion scene, boosted by the soundtrack, is very powerfully done.
Where you really see the director behind the film shine through, is in the subversive nature of Jesus. This is the Jesus of class struggle. A subversive, passionately geared toward overthrowing ingrained systems of power. An anarchist. Sure that’s inherent in the Jesus of the bible (if not the Jesus of today’s most prominent Christian movements), but Pasolini amplifies that over trite miracles. The focus of this cinematic Jesus (and by extension presumably the director) is blowing up the self-interest of those with unearned religious power. He ‘holds no distinction from man to man’. Again Pasolini emphasising the socialist aspect of Christ. There is a dichotomy to Jesus in that he is both man and more than man. Pasolini shows this through showing the way in which he renounces his family and other actions that appear questionable. As well as his very human grief at the death of John the Baptist. On the other hand is the depth of love he shows to the family he builds, of all those who have faith. A well of love that comes from a spirituality that transcends his biological humanity. Perhaps spiritual is too twee a word for The Gospel According to Matthew. Elemental may be more accurate and more in line with what Pasolini was angling for. This aspect is throughout the film. In the movement of people across landscapes, the acknowledgment of God, the purity of a child (any child), the great expanses of the physical environment and how Jesus occupies and moves through that expanse.
Verdict: This film from 1964 may well be the portrait of Jesus that 2016 needs. The historical figure, a fierce subversive, has long been highjacked by the right for their own devious means. Here is an elemental picture of the radical, delivered by a cinematic radical, lifted straight from the text of the bible. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Director Ken Loach is a champion for people who rarely have one in the field of cinema. Hell he is a champion for people who rarely have one in broader society, let alone the arts. I, Daniel Blake (2016) is as indignant and timely a film as the 80 year old has ever made – crushing, empathetic and infuriating. In the screening I was in, you could feel the energy pulsing through the audience as each injustice was wrought on the characters. The film sees Daniel Blake caught in the confusing maelstrom of the welfare system in England. A situation that leaves an honest man barely able to eat or get by.
Whilst the film is very specific to England, it confronts issues that also affect working class people in Australia as well as elsewhere. Conservative governments, fit to burst with privilege, see humiliation as an acceptable deterrent for welfare. They set out to frustrate those who desperately need help into abandoning hope because of the ‘system’. The film achingly depicts how state structures are used not just to humiliate, but to totally dehumanise those who most need the exact opposite in our society. The blame for this is squarely laid at the feet of conservative power, with their obsession for privatisation and savings above all else. Champions of ending welfare, they have never experienced hardship, so they can simply not fathom how others have. But all this is not achieved through staid or even generally depressing means. At the heart of the film is the (platonic) relationship between Dave Johns’ Daniel and Hayley Squires’ Katie. A single mum who Dan helps to get by in shocking circumstances. The heart and camaraderie of those in our society who have the least is one of the most uplifting elements of a film that for the most part is quite the opposite.
Verdict: The most important element of Loach’s filmmaking and worldview is his affection and respect for those he is depicting. I, Daniel Blake shows his sharp eye can turn equally to the oppressive mechanism of the state and the real people who are crushed by it. A quietly devastating film. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was perhaps one of the first ‘world’ films to really break out. Especially 5-10 years ago this was a film that budding cinephiles yearned to see and talk about. It also inspired the much loved American-west set remake The Magnificent Seven (1960) which would further cement the film’s ongoing legacy. However the intimidating run time (well over three hours) and the fact there are just so many damn films to get to, meant I only recently checked this one out for the first time.
Seven Samurai begins with a plot structure the film innovated, but which by now you would have seen a million times. A village, under repeated assault from bandits and realising the existential danger a post-harvest raid would pose, sends representatives into the city to attempt to locate some samurai and convince them to defend their homes. Though not without its charms, this opening section is a bit of a slog, laboured to the point it can feel a little boring. There are some nice comedic moments though and Kurosawa excels at establishing the sense of a land of great poverty which establishes the stakes for the entire film and the importance of the central task. However once the recruitment starts picking up steam so does the film, and things really start to zip along. This first act also establishes a social dynamic that is one of the film’s two sources of tension (the other, more obvious one being the crew of murderous bandits). The villagers are in a bind. They are utterly reliant on the samurai, needing to pay them for protection. But they are also terrified of them with fears of a murderous or sexual assault rampage sweeping through the village. The titular seven are a fun, unique crew. Makes the viewer want to see how they will interact and if their attitudes can co-exist enough to achieve the task at hand.
The script is responsible for establishing a lot of this, achieving the difficult task of bringing out the dynamics of the individual members and how they function as a troupe. These individual aspirations and group dynamics also evolve really well as the film progresses. Similarly, the writing of the long battle stretches, especially how the tactics evolve under pressure as the situation changes, makes for some of the best ‘war’ sequences ever. The second half of the film is a succession of military style training, tactics and brutal fights that makes plain why this film deserves its classic status. It’s also quite a vicious, murderous film. A great example of how a film foes not have to be bloody to be really violent, and at times barbaric. It’s also a film about process. Preparations, tactical planning, back and forth discussions of strategy. Again all written with a clarity that makes it super engaging and immersive. The writing is responsible actually for it being a much more immersive portrait of war than any other example of the genre.
The film also operates on numerous levels. As a siege film it is tense and genre heavy. It is saying societal level things about militarisation, as well as the role of a government to protect, to lift up and also to tax. But then it is also charming, featuring witty jokes and commenting on new love and the maintenance of it. Much of the film is stylistically way ahead of its time, still feeling fresh today. The use of slow motion when someone dies is an incredible flourish that has been mimicked ever since. Even just the use of close-ups during conversation, adds so much to the weight of individual scenes. As well as the style, the entire film is enhanced by the presence of Toshiro Mifune. Here he proves why he was one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived. He had a presence to him onscreen that transcended, though was heavily reliant on, mere acting ability. Able to balance the hero and fool elements of this character like few others would have been able to, Mifune’s Kikuchiyo becomes the clear charismatic anchor point of the film.
Verdict: Especially after the first 45 minutes, Seven Samurai is a feat of very crisp, clear storytelling. Time has not blunted the film at all over the past 60 years. It is still a vicious, cerebral and immersive examination of warfare and community that deserves its place in any canon of truly great cinema. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Director Josh Oppenheimer burst on the scene with The Act of Killing (2012) a devastating and creative documentary that challenged a lot of notions about objectivity in the doco space. Now he returns with The Look of Silence (2014) continuing his cinematic exploration of the horrific and under-told story of the Indonesian genocide.
The Look of Silence, at least on a surface level, takes a more conventional approach to exposing these dark chapters of Indonesia’s past. Oppenheimer focuses on Adi, an optometrist whose brother was murdered during the genocide. Oppenheimer and Adi meet the men who killed his brother and follow the leads up the chain of command. Adi is an incredible character, retaining a quiet resoluteness in the face of revelations that would break pretty much all of us. Adi’s silent stoicism, oozing grace and strength, contrasts starkly with the murderers he confronts. They bluster, trying to intimidate him with swagger and bravado, but in doing so they merely reveal the depths of their cowardice. When he refuses to run away scared, they basically shit themselves, unable to own the sins they committed.
It is interesting to consider the film in relation to how it interacts with the first one. It is focussed on the same genocide and in similarly graphic detail on specific murders. It also retains the horrifying absurdity of the earlier film. Though this time that absurdity comes not from the challengingly playful style of The Act of Killing, but simply thorough the horrific callousness and overwhelming meaninglessness of the crimes. There is something almost muscular about this film and perhaps the most powerful moment of all comes in the closing credits. Just like in The Act of Killing, they are peppered with numerous appearances of ‘Anonymous’ throughout the crew. It speaks to how suppressed and systematically frowned upon any truthful discussion of the genocide remains in Indonesia remains some 60 years after the events took place.
Another exhibition of the pervasiveness of the official narrative comes when Adi lays down a ‘people’s history’ for his son. He subverts the official narrative and you can almost pinpoint the exact moment the little kid’s mind is blown. It feels almost like the moment you found out Santa Claus is not real (spoiler alert), but just on a much more important and weighty matter. This is one of many moments that make The Look of Silence a much more personal film than its predecessor. Much of this is down to the fact that the film focuses so heavily on Adi and the murder of his brother. It is a much more comfortable in for the audience. It is easier to identify with a man who has lost his brother compared to a mass murderer (though I acknowledge we are in no way meant to sympathise with Anwar and co in the first film).
What sets Oppenheimer apart from mere mortal documentarians is his power as a storyteller. He is able to see the facts, see the injustices. But he does not simply put them on screen, he creatively interrogates them and brings out specific points for the audience to be shocked and challenged by. In this film, the themes of violence, the dangers of the concentration of power are greatly enhanced by his phenomenal storytelling nous. It is that skill which allows him to make universal points out of very specific incidents. Not sure that anyone has ever captured pure evil onscreen quite like him, at least not in a very long time.
Verdict: The Look of Silence is the best film I saw at SFF and it is not even a close race. It is a great film, probably the best I have seen yet this year. An incredible companion piece to The Act of Killing, different and yet equally as good. Perhaps even better. This is a film that will affect you in a borderline physical manner. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
I’ve been working on my Worth Watching May edition, where I was originally intending to share my thoughts on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). But I couldn’t contain my gushing to acceptable lengths. So here is a ‘short long’ review of Miller’s crackerjack film.
What a great fuckin movie Mad Max: Fury Road is. Such a radical departure from basically everything else, it’s a little hard to talk about. Almost plotless, yet with great stakes, speaking to the quality of the writing. It dispenses with exposition almost entirely and manages to tell everything it needs through action. It’s a rip roaringly feminist ride and fearless about showing the human body in all its forms, which is definitely something to be celebrated. Miller is clearly an artist unwilling to compromise and man it shows. The downside is that he does not make anywhere near enough films. The upside is that when he does, they turn out like this.
Basically everything is pitch perfect, especially stylistically. The film looks amazing, but also original. It’s not Hollywood sheen, it’s Miller doing whatever the fuck he wants and it looking like some apocalyptic comic book splash page dreamscape. There’s still the practical effects bite. But CGI is blended in seamlessly and elevates the breakneck action. This allows stunts that could never be pulled off safely in practical terms to make it onscreen, without ever falling into the Fast and the Furious trap of veering into sheer silly impossibility. That willingness to embrace technology whilst still recognising the benefits that these films have always garnered from the crushing physicality of practical effects is one choice that a lot of directors would not have been able to make. And it is perhaps the most important one to the success of the film. Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and Hoult’s Nux characters are ones for the ages and it’s the former that drives the plot, setting the events in motion. She is a character that little girls will want to be. At least once they are allowed to see the film. Hardy’s Max is works well as an almost wordless foil to her leadership.
Verdict: You have already seen this right? Miller has returned to the series after all these years and made a better film than any of the others. More please. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) may well be the most iconic horror film of all time. Everyone has a story of the first time they saw it, or shudders at the mere mention of the film, refusing to ever watch based on its reputation. My mum often talks about how petrified she was when my old man took her to see it when she was about 17.
Everything you’ve heard about the film don’t prepare you for just how strange it is. I was expecting a pretty mainstream horror film. But after the chilling credits music and opening shot, the film heads off for an extended Northern-Iraq set prologue. These scenes in the desert almost feel like they could be from a Terrence Malick film. The most shocking thing about watching The Exorcist for the first time for me was the ethereal and not at all mainstream vibe of the film which was so different to my expectations and so refreshing as a result. It’s unapologetically a big swirling mass of a film.
So much discourse around The Exorcist centres on the religious facets, which is unsurprising given the title. However what struck me whilst watching the film was the fact that it unfolds really through a medical prism. It is assumed by all of the characters that the issues besetting Regan are medical in nature. When Regan’s mum first approaches Father Karas regarding an exorcism (at the suggestion of doctors), even he steers her enquiries away from the spiritual realm. One part of why, despite the strangeness of the film, The Exorcist has become such a beloved horror classic, is the imagery that Friedkin and co were able to produce. Regan scuttling down the stairs, her head turning right around, or even just her appearance towards the end of the film, these are some of the most arresting and iconic images that the genre has ever brought to life. The film progresses methodically along for much of its lengthy running time, but then explodes with intensity and never lets up afterwards. The assured craftsmanship of the writing and directing ensures that none of the events of the film ever feel ludicrous or silly. The culmination of this build-up comes as a distinct pall comes over the film throughout the climactic exorcism, in as gripping a half hour odd of cinema you will ever come across.
Watching the film, you can see the similarities it has with films of a similar vintage, most notably for me The Omen (1976) – the presence of priests, a washed out colour palette and a similar feel to the domestic settings. It wheels out some traditional horror tropes as well, including the freaky attic. But having said that, by the end of the film it is plain why The Exorcist is held in such high regard, because it takes everything its contemporaries were doing, does them better and then does a whole bunch of things those other films never even attempted. The film is very classically and beautifully shot, trading in silhouettes, shadows, low and high angle shots. All of which look damn beautiful on the sharp blu-ray release that I watched. Friedkin is able to place the camera in such a way that it gets not only really pretty shots, but also creates a whole lot of tension, without ever feeling gimmicky.
One of the hallmarks of so much, but not all, really classic horror cinema is the quality of the performance. And with Linda Blair, Jason Miller and Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist can legitimately lay claim to having three of the best the genre has ever seen. So much of the religion/medicine divide is summed up through Jason Miller’s world weary turn as Father Karras (incredibly his debut film performance), Ellen Burstyn is ultra-believable as a mother going through an absolute living nightmare, but it is Blair’s film. As the possessed Regan, she is so totally in control of her performance. Remarkably so in fact for someone of her age. The range of content she handles, innocent/inquisitive child, totally possessed force of nature, explicit sexual references and profanity, is all so well done that not once are you taken out of the world of the film.
Verdict: Not only does The Exorcist deserve its exalted reputation, it probably deserves more. I was unprepared for just how strange and iconic an experience watching this film would be, as well as blown away by the density of the material and the themes. This is a pretty great and truly unique piece of cinema. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
“Embrace the grind” – someone, once upon a time talking about wrestling
I never wrestled. I am a lapsed jiu-jitsu white belt though. Jiu-jitsu was tough, way too tough for me both mentally and physically. Wrestling wears you down and not a whole lot of people can hack that. This is what wrestlers refer to as the grind, and being able to embrace it as the quote above suggests, is a badge of honour.
Foxcatcher (2014), well half of it, is about the grind. The first half of the film very much embodies the notion, embracing and reflecting the psychological and physical approach that wrestlers are so fond of talking about. Mark Schultz, played with a depth many didn’t think he had by Channing Tatum, is a superstar wrester. An Olympic champion. But even wrestlers at the pinnacle of their sport, embrace a working class aesthetic. Part of this is financial reality. The sport pays next to nothing, and like so many Olympic sports, is only in the broader public consciousness once every 4 years. But it’s also the sweaty, physically brutal aspect of the grind. Tatum has that raw physicality of a developing athlete and is able to embody, both in looks and performance, that pure athleticism.
Watching the film at times feels like a physical experience. So much of the brotherly relationship between the characters played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum is conveyed through physical contact, the way they warm up and grapple. The working class aesthetic of wrestling as well is captured by this physical approach to the film. Part of that is the fact we more or less see the events of the film from the perspective of Tatum’s Shultz who as a character encapsulates the arc of an athlete. All he ever really known is that athletic path of grind and ups and downs. He knows nothing else, so that is the only real way that he can express himself and engage with those around him.
The second half of the film is more a psychological thriller, or to be more precise a psychological portrait of Steve Carrell’s John Du Pont. His deep-seated creepiness and mommy issues are explored and played out, without ever resorting to an over the top expository approach. The reaction of Du Pont to these failings is an insatiable desire to be considered a ‘great’, physical and masculine presence. So he surrounds himself with the Shultz brothers who are that above all. His attempts to mirror their impact on the world around them are comical, but they also make Foxcatcher an exceptionally dark journey. It is so disconcerting to witness sequences of the frail DuPont trying to coach wrestling. Aching to fit in and impress despite his clear mental and physical limitations. It is here that the two aspects of the film seep into one another. DuPont sees the grind and physical contact of wrestling as a way to deal with or play out his psychological foibles.
It is in the early stages of the film’s second part that it is weakest. Tatum’s Mark Schultz abruptly transforms from a driven, world class athlete, to a drunk and drug addled bum, exaggeratedly tending to DuPont. The distinctive, overt depiction of the homoeroticism of the relationship between Mark Schultz and DuPont strongly recalls Behind the Candelabra (2013). It is hard not to feel this complexity between the two men could not have been depicted in a more muted and dark manner, which would have been more in keeping with the rest of the film stylistically.
Much has been made of the performances in Foxcatcher, and with good reason. However if anything, Steve Carrel’s turn is the least impressive. It’s still a great performance, and he manages to overcome the shock of his physical appearance and truly inhabit the role dramatically, to a really high level, much more so in my opinion than Eddie Redmayne managed in The Theory of Everything (2014). The hook nose and off-putting voice never distract from the character and the psychological force that he brings to the film. I changed my mind repeatedly through the film as to which of the three leads delivered the standout performance. It has to be Tatum though. He takes a character that could have almost been a simpleton and makes it something exceptionally complex. Mark Ruffalo is equally as good as both of them, in a role without the focus of the other two, but who is in a large part responsible and a part of basically all that happens in the film.
Verdict: Foxcatcher is essentially a film about masculinity. That is a description that would generally turn me right off a film, but here with the astute direction of Bennett Miller and three exceptional performances, there is a cutting incisiveness to that notion, filtered equally through athletic pursuit and psychological descent. It’s at times a brutal and slow thematic exploration, but it is a film that will creep up on you with its quiet brilliance and uniqueness. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter