Politics & Policy

Foxcatcher Is 2014’s Worst Movie; Be yond the Lights Hits a High Note

Foxcatcher (Sony Pictures)
Bennett Miller's du Pont true-crime pic punishes audiences. Gina Prince-Bythewood scores with a human-scaled showbiz story.

Prediction: Foxcatcher will always be the worst film of 2014 no matter what movie opens between now and year’s end. No other film could outdo director Bennett Miller’s insidious denigration of American behavior or his dank presentation of sorrowful real-life events. Don’t be fooled by praise for Foxcatcher; this catastrophe includes the widespread cynicism of politically slanted media hacks who celebrate their own America-bashing negativity.

Miller dramatizes the 1988 story of chemical heir John du Pont’s killing of Olympic wrestler Dave Shultz, characterizing the situation with the same drab visual scheme as his 2004 film Capote. Miller’s worlds always look overcast; even his baseball movie Moneyball seemed rained out — cloudy with the gloom of “seriousness.” Not content to portray the vaguely sexual murder through In Cold Blood–style social observation and psychological speculation, Miller pretends to get “political.” The du Pont–Schultz disaster is presented with solemn music (including Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) and a nighttime image of the Washington monument here contextualized as a defiled phallic symbol — evidence of national decadence and decline. Miller shows the instincts of a dull-witted editorial writer, not an artist.

With Foxcatcher, Miller caters to the Occupy mentality that “one percenters” are the bane of mankind. DuPont is depicted as a predator so fascinated by wrestling — and wrestlers — that he commissions and trains his own team (called “Foxcatchers,” after the DuPonts’ parkland estate) to compete for the Olympics. Du Pont (Steve Carell) inveigles the jock Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in order to get at his married brother-trainer Dave (Mark Ruffalo) as part of a private, rapacious scheme. “There Will Be Buggery” could be the alternate title for Miller’s true-crime American class-war drama. (Vanessa Redgrave rolls in for a pointless cameo faking aristocratic disdain as DuPont’s equestrian mother.)

Suspiciously wealthy du Pont is freaky to the extreme, like a mad potentate living off his family’s laboratory profits and hatching sinister, idiosyncratic plans. “I’m an ornithologist,” the moneyed voyeur boasts. “But more importantly, I consider myself a patriot.” This admission defames right-wing affluence same as Miller’s obvious class snobbery miscalculates each characterization. Carell’s du Pont has rough, Rocky Dennis skin, small yellow teeth, and a large fake nose as if to sniff locker-room and wrestling-arena funk; he’s the ultimate antisocial weirdo. Most people would avoid coming within a foot of this creep, so why does his team stay mute about his grab-ass ineptitude? An artist would avoid piling political invective atop such an exaggeration, but then overstatement is key to Miller’s acclaim.

Foxcatcher queers patriotism as the refuge of perverts, and so du Pont, running his own sports brothel at his manor near Valley Forge, becomes the basis for a glum type of tabloid sensationalism. Loony du Pont is how liberals like to typify conservatives: nefarious and comical. Thus, casting 40-Year-Old-Virgin Carell is a Kubrickian stunt. The sight of this uncoordinated, adenoidal nerd in a wrestling ring or on a private firing range dressed in athletic sweats attempts a Kubrick image minus Kubrick’s sharp wit.

Miller’s technique is single-mindedly propagandistic. Obsessed with du Pont’s “America winning” obsession, Miller negates that ethic the way liberals object to American exceptionalism. He makes this point by sneering at the Schultz brothers as quasi-incestuous dupes. Channing Tatum epitomizes the dumb-jock stereotype: thick-limbed and slow-witted, with cauliflower ears and jaw always in Neanderthal jut. It’s not acting so much as unfortunate typecasting. Unaware of du Pont’s making passes, he succumbs with the same queasy reticence and sex phobia that Miller brought to the male relationships in Capote. Feeling superior to his characters, Miller showss a  contemptuousness that elicits both disgust and pity — genuine Oscar bait.

Embarrassing as it is to watch Carell and Tatum go humorless and portentous, it’s Ruffalo’s touchy-feely performance that exposes Miller’s dishonesty. Ruffalo’s “gift” is to always indicate his director’s intent—and this director is misanthropic. Even if you forgot which Schultz brother will die, Ruffalo’s schematic hamminess gives it away. Besides, Miller saves Tatum for further diminishing in Aronofsky-type scenes of his humiliation, cheered on by bloodthirsty sports fans shouting “USA! USA! USA!” — as if to definitively prove we are a nation of insensitive cretins. Critics who praise Foxcatcher are no different. Exploitation of the du Pont and Schultz families — without a single moment of empathy — is so false to American experience it demeans everyone.

Remember: America-bashing became movie vogue during the Vietnam era, as Hollywood filmmakers expressed their anxiety over the ongoing war in Southeast Asia. Hatred returned with a vengeance after the 2000 presidential election and the Iraq War. Miller’s three fiction features — Capote, Moneyball, and Foxcatcher — are redolent of that revenge-and-guilt backlash. A filmmaker this repugnant gets acclaim and backing not because his films are good (they’re lousy) but because they represent anti-American attitudes prevalent among film-culture liberals. Distributors and reviewers all endorse Bennett’s films as expressions of their own political pessimism. Bennett hustles pessimism. He is, alack, an emblematic filmmaker for this scornful media age. Foxcatcher punishes American guilt by punishing moviegoers.

***

Tired of being a pop vixen, singer Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) takes the plum-colored extensions from her hair to unroll her naturally black, African curls in the movie Beyond the Lights. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood dares this revelatory moment in the first film she’s directed since her winning ethnic romance Love & Basketball (2000). GPB deals knowingly with showbiz vicissitudes from the perspective of a black woman with something to say about the frustrations of going unrecognized, the insider insight of a hustler.

Compare GPB letting down Noni’s hair to a recent episode of TV’s How to Get Away with Murder, wherein Viola Davis going wigless recently triggered Internet controversy. Notice the artful filmmaking difference. GPB deplores shock tactics, which is why her career contrasts with that of TV’s widely, and unwisely, celebrated Shonda Rhimes, a network showrunner who reverses black women’s social image. Rhimes’s hustle recalls Bennett Miller’s — sneering sensationalism — while GPB labors against the sensationalist impulse. She’s a romantic, but her realism about the sacrifices that role-playing exacts from women results in a richly conflicted entertainment.

Every time Noni sings Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” is like the first time — a fresh reminder about aspiration and self. Beyond the Lights partly comments on the irreducible Beyoncé phenomenon, but it’s strongest on female-artist hustling — whether biracial Noni, her white mother-manager (Minnie Driver), or GPB’s own response to the legacy of romantic fictions that influence or obstruct personal realization. Noni’s romance with Los Angeles cop Kaz (Nate Parker, a worthy suitor) updates Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard, but GPB deftly employs numerous pop-culture codes from Chaka Khan’s hair color to Lil’ Kim; from A Taste of Honey to Showgirls; from Diana Ross’s Mahogany to Gypsy, Mommie Dearest, and back to Nina Simone. GPB shows an artist’s candor when Noni asks political aspirant Kaz what “vetted” means and he answers, “A classy way of begging for money.” Without pretension, Beyond the Lights offers more insight into human experience than Miller and his anti-American cultists could ever enjoy.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.

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