Foxcatcher is slow but not plodding, while Birdman feels like a train that’s slipped the tracks. Yet notwithstanding the differences in pacing and tone both are quite intense.
My favourite performances in Foxcatcher was actually my favourite relationship, the brothers, played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum. How to describe it. There was something brutish and animalistic and yet broken and vulnerable about Tatum, and Ruffalo – ironically the beast in need of taming in the Avengers series – wrangled the bear (the Tatum) with rough physical affection and quiet mother-henning. One of my favourite scenes is a moment where Tatum storms out of his brother’s hotel room after telling off his brother’s wife (played by Sienna Miller, or so I read; because honestly she kind of disappeared into the background); his big brother calls out to him, nothing over the top, just hold up, and he does, because there’s a rope between them that only needs gentle tugging. And he doesn’t use words to chastise his brother for disrespecting his wife, or ask him why he’s overreacting to her perceived slight of his new boss (Steve Carrell), he leans into him and begins instructing him in a wrestling maneuver and his brother relaxes into the familiar comfort. That was my read on it anyway. I wish I had a link to that scene so you could see it. Yes, I went looking for it on youtube. I found instead the clips I saw a million times last Oscar season. They’re good clips but not the one that touches on the heart and soul of the relationship between the brothers and at the same time reinforces the muted intensity of the film.
I mentioned Steve Carrell. He’s good in this. Odd but not just surface odd because of his prosthetic nose and stiff gait but because there’s something bleak and dark and unsettling behind his eyes – like those guys they hunt on Criminal Minds. You see it from the jump and even without knowing the tragic story this film is based on (which I learned only vaguely during awards season), you wonder how the brothers – former medaling Olympians – can’t see it too. But of course, life post-Olympics doesn’t have a lot of options for a wrestler and he’s offering them a second shot. One (Ruffalo) resists, while Channing is gung ho, so gung ho he spirals unquestioningly down the rabbit hole that is the world of Dupont (that’s Carrell, the character with too much money and narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies, by purely layperson’s understanding of those terms, of course). Rufffalo steps into the world much later, perhaps in part to be there for his brother (my reading as his change of heart is one of several motivations not really explained in this film). He pays the greater price and even though the why is not fully explained, it makes sense, so strong is the character work in this film. There was only one moment when I felt Channing peep through; throughout everything from their voices, to their facial expressions or lack thereof, to the way they move and hold themselves is consistently in character. Well done, all around; even Sienna Miller, I guess, because I definitely didn’t associate the character with the tabloid darling until I read her name – then I had to check Wikepedia to be sure.
Now, Birdman. I’m a little less enthusiastic about this (a little more so, actually, after a second viewing). But I’ll tell you what I liked. And this one surprised the crap out of me because I’m not a fan of this actor, Edward Norton, as a theatre actor with an outsized ego who never met an inappropriate act or declaration he didn’t like. He brought a spark to each scene he was in, creating a necessary tension between him and Michael Keaton, the Hollywood actor (former Birdman, *wink* Batman) who’s trying to reinvent himself as a theatre actor, writer and producer and who everyone, including himself, sees as a fraud. Keaton’s scenes with Norton and with himself, his alter ego Birdman, are some of the best moments in the film. His scenes with his daughter, in fact any of his daughter’s scenes, not so much. Sorry, Emma, I’ve liked you since Superbad and Easy A but I didn’t find you convincing in this role (and yes, I know you got several awards nods for the role). I think Alejandro González Iñárritu deserved his directing nod and not just for what he achieved technically (the lengthy uninterrupted tracking shots etc. which takes precision in terms of blocking and pacing for flow, not even for the performances, but for the uncomfortable glimpse behind the curtain – not just the curtain separating the theatre from its audience, but also the curtain separating a man from himself). Oh and for making Zach Galifinakis bearable…and unrecognizable. Which maybe is the same thing. Yes, yes, he’s very funny, whatever, I’m not a fan but even he works very well in this.
And, okay, Iñárritu, because of this I might give The Revenant
Anyway, Birdman, Foxcatcher…with Whiplash (which I didn’t like as much but thought J.K. Simmons deserved his Oscar for), that’s three movies from last Oscar season I’m all caught up on. Maybe I’ll have seen them all by the time next Oscar season rolls around.