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Wrestling With the Truth: The True Crime of ‘Foxcatcher’ and ‘Serial’

Truth or dare: What ‘Serial’ gets right, ‘Foxcatcher’ shies away from.

The color is drained out of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. The sparely used score sounds notes of dread. Steve Carell, wearing a beak of a nose and speaking with a deliberate, nasal drone, goes from scene to scene like a vampire in his 15,000-square-foot coffin. More than two hours are required for confirmation, but it’s fair to assume that we’re as much at a funeral as at a movie. The movie seems directed unto death. The camera often keeps its distance. The cutting and writing build so intently toward something grim that a sense of fear permeates even the slivers of comedy. The seriousness and mystery of the film seep into you. You want to know where it’s headed. But the movie is so chiseled down and sculpted that even once it gets there (you know when), it’s unclear that it’s earned it.

Foxcatcher recounts a story based on real events, in which John E. du Pont (Carell), an heir to the DuPont chemical and weapons empire, reaches out to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a young freestyle wrestler from Michigan, who, along with his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. Du Pont wants to form a team to take to Seoul in ’88 and believes the brothers will get him there. Dave has a family and a stable life as a wrestling coach in Michigan. He doesn’t want to decamp for du Pont’s eastern Pennsylvania manor. So the task of amassing and training a squad falls to Mark, a loner who seems lost, both existentially and physically. The film shows him standing around as he’s thinking about what to do, how to walk, what his name is.

He’s drawn not to du Pont’s old-money affluence but to the older man’s expression of all-American can-do-ism. Mark spends the opening scene flatly addressing an auditorium of school children. Before he enters, he sits in a beat-up car and puts on his medal. Inside, he tells the kids, “I wanna talk about America, and I wanna talk about why I wrestle.” He goes through the virtues required to get the gold. But does he mean it? Is that what a gold-medal winner is supposed to tell children? The movie is made smartly enough for you to understand the appeal of du Pont to Mark: Mark is flattered by du Pont’s interest in him and fascinated by his Americanness. Doesn’t du Pont share that nose with George Washington, whose painting hangs in a room at the mansion? But Mark is also put up in a cottage with a crowded taxidermy case. Welcome to the collection.

Things get weird between Mark and du Pont. But the movie refuses to go further than insinuation. Late one night, du Pont rouses Mark from sleep for a late-night practice that consists entirely of the older man writhing atop the younger one. There’s a quick cut to the revulsion in Mark’s eyes. It’s as if he’s been lost all of this time, only to find himself beneath this man. The disillusionment comes through. Du Pont flies Mark to speaking engagements by helicopter and introduces him to cocaine. He gets Mark to serve as his deflated hype man, fixes 50-and-over wrestling matches to make himself the victor, and berates Mark in front of the rest of the squad. It’s another story of the abuse of power, following Whiplash and Gone Girl, occupying a dark corner not far from the mess in which Bill Cosby is mired. Foxcatcher differs from the other two movies in that the symbiosis doesn’t hold. The fox doesn’t want to stay caught.

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The story comes together as a series of impressions. I’ve seen it three times, and I still can’t tell whether Miller has control over the material or if the stripped-down style masks a lack of control. At some point, Mark Schultz has a breakdown that culminates with his going hard on stationary bike, desperate to make weight for a match. It might as well be Miller doing the pedaling. At the same time, Foxcatcher’s mix of solemnity, dread, and detachment is a kind of cowardly snobbery, a director presenting the weird and the awful while also holding his nose. Miller also made Capote and Moneyball, one a film about a journalist, the other a film based on a work of journalism. Capote is as sepulchral as Foxcatcher, which shares the observant qualities of some documentaries. Moneyball had Aaron Sorkin refracting the probing warmth of Michael Lewis’s reporting; it was about as cold as Miller could get it. There wasn’t much he could do about the rosy disposition of Billy Beane, but you left with the sense that if Miller could have made the whole movie about how wronged that combustible version of Art Howe was, he would have. Foxcatcher has a script, credited to Dan Futterman (who adapted Capote from Gerald Clarke’s book) and E. Max Frye, that was based on news sources. It’s going for a brand of journalism.

The filmmakers tell us neither who these characters are nor why they behave as they do. And, unlike in Capote, there’s no feathery genius lurking about to surmise what is what. The approach in Foxcatcher begs to be taken seriously. It treats distance as a virtue, and it’s tempting to be seduced by that. The movie is handsome and the acting is strong, especially by Ruffalo, who invests a wispy part with so much salt of the earth, he makes you thirsty. But there’s a hollowness here, too, that speaks to a lack of audacity.

Foxcatcher could have been a work of true crime, but like Capote, it takes a step back in the name of observation. Miller could have gambled, say, on a serious comedy, not unlike what Richard Linklater got away with in Bernie, which sprinkled interviews with real people into its ironic mini farce. Miller is going for something larger and heavier and more classical — Hal Ashby with none of the dappling sunlight. There are a number of offbeat funny bits — a video of the du Pont legacy that Mark’s forced to watch, or du Pont telling Mark how he’d like to be addressed — but the movie still feels constricted. Foxcatcher is so circumspect as a quasi-journalistic exercise that it feels corrupt as a work of drama. It doesn’t want to sensationalize or mock, which you can understand. But its chilliness feels preemptive, as if it wants to keep the emotional temperature from going up. There are key conversations that lead to critical actions that we see but don’t hear. Is a mystery being built up, or is the movie reluctant to put words in characters’ mouths?

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Miller’s movies deny the trap of salaciousness in favor of the impression of factuality. That might be what some people like about them. Their flamboyant restraint signifies tastefulness, artiness. I prefer the mess and the chance-taking of something like the Serial podcast. Every week for the last two months, reporter Sarah Koenig has been risking personal and professional embarrassment to get to the bottom of a true mystery that might lack a floor. Some of the appeal of the show comes from how willing Koenig is to seem like a fool. It’s a hazard of reporting that Miller, Futterman, and Frye don’t attempt.

Koenig is reinvestigating a 15-year-old-murder, for which Adnan Syed is serving a life sentence. The victim was his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. They were teenagers, and the evidence against Syed at the time seemed credible but hardly overwhelming. Koenig lays out the case, and then a couple of episodes later more or less does so again, but from different angles, angles that could be wider or more narrow, exploring rabbit holes of reasonable doubt, probable cause, and second-guessing. Episode to episode, we get a sense of the difference between reporting and detective work. You’re free to chart the shifting strength of one in relation to the other. But the reason for the show’s historic popularity — it’s the country’s most downloaded podcast — is that Koenig is pulling us with her through the looking glass. There’s an open naïveté to her questions and a wish to be right, whatever right looks like. (She claims to be as in the dark about what happened the evening of Lee’s murder as we are.)

Even if you’re critical of the show — and there have been plenty of critiques, many of them focused on the problem of race (aside from Koenig, the three main figures are of color) — it hooks you. And her approach has turned people into co-sleuths and conspiracists and debunkers of Koenig’s methodology. Has she made herself too much the story? Is there a kind of upper-middle-class, NPR-friendly crime tourism to the show? The answer varies from one week to another, and that risk is resonantly compelling: Could we do better? Koenig is tone-deaf and reductive one minute, ingenious and intrepid the next. She spent years as a reporter and producer at This American Life (that show’s creator and host, Ira Glass, is an editorial adviser on Serial), and she has sharp instincts and a sure sense of suspense and surprise (some of her naïveté feels like a reportorial act). The warts-and-all approach insulates her against most criticisms, and the naturally selective art of storytelling constitutes a cogent defense against others. These are real lives and real pain she’s wading around in, but she has yet to lose sight of anyone’s human complexity in that process.

HBO’s fictional True Detective, which built a mystery an episode at a time, caused a similar sensation earlier this year. It had a pomposity that made me roll my eyes. I watched, but it was too full of cop-show, Deep South, serial-killer clichés to fall in love with. Koenig’s feat comes from taking you someplace mainstream storytelling infrequently goes. She missteps occasionally. But this isn’t tourism with her — or porn, as it was on True Detective. It’s daring human interest. Her doubts become yours: What if Adnan just killed Lee, and that’s it? Koenig’s commitment becomes yours, too. It’s a messy quest both for justice and for what passes for closure. There’s something important on the line here, and it feels as if we — Syed, Koenig, other listeners — are hunting for it together.

Foxcatcher never dares that pursuit. There are more answers than the movie has questions. The audience is left to do a lot of the asking. I imagine Miller and the screenwriters believe the not knowing is the point, that they’ve given us a mystery. Why did Mark Schultz fall so deeply under du Pont’s spell? What did du Pont fear about Dave, who winds up moving to the estate after saying he couldn’t? Did the brothers have no one who could warn them about what they were getting themselves into? Was there no way to flesh out du Pont as a man — one some said was a paranoid schizophrenic — so that Carell would have more to play than an emblem of entitlement? This du Pont simply seems curdled by affluence, a child still hungering for the approval of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, perfectly disdainful in her two full scenes), even as he’s found something, in wrestling, with which to disappoint her.

I’ve spent almost as many hours with Foxcatcher as I have with Serial. I kept going back to Miller’s movie because I was intrigued. It seems heavier than it is. I left somber every time, but also in a state of bewilderment. The filmmakers might say they’re making us think, but it’s not a kind of thinking I enjoy. It’s as if we’re thinking on a reticent movie’s behalf. The questions we have arise more from lapses in the writing, gaps in the story, characters whose details have been shaved away, and from the performances, too. Tatum, for instance, might be playing a naturally remote guy. But the movie’s been cut — using lots of shots of his back and the back of his head, of him in profile — in a way that renders him passive. He’s photographed as a forlorn slab. A friend wondered whether he’d been miscast, whether a young Tom Cruise would’ve been right. But even with Cruise, there would be almost no part to act.

Ruffalo’s so good because Miller seems to trust the actor’s physicality. Ruffalo is filmed so that you can see his swinging arms and fluttering fingers. He’s playing a wrestler. Tatum is stuck playing a kind of brute. Carell keeps a handle on the tone here; he could have done the Bernie approach, too. He isn’t running from the comedy of the role. But the movie is. You can feel it wanting, in its vagueness, to skip past being simply a wrestling movie or a crime film. You can feel it straining to say something timely — or timeless — about America. You get a sense of the tale of submission and domination that might have been in one alarming shot of a newly blond, bloated Mark kneeling at du Pont’s feet. They’re both high. That image doesn’t open all the way into a work of moral perversity. Miller seems proud of that. Consequently, his movie seems too good to dig for a clear version of the truth.