I recently had the pleasure of watching two of this year’s awards contenders in quick succession. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash unfurled before my eyes in the same cinema, the same auditorium and the same seat over the course of a single day. It was rather tiring but very rewarding, although I wish the screenings had been the other way around. Foxcatcher was hugely engaging and rewarding, whereas Whiplash left me wanting more and wondering what all the fuss is about.
The two films have much in common. Both are up for multiple awards, and Whiplash’s J. K. Simmons has already won the Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild award and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. Both feature highly skilled protagonists who seek to be the best at what they do: Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher is already an Olympic gold medal wrestler and wishes to repeat this accomplishment; Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) in Whiplash wants to be one of the greatest drummers in the world. Both films feature tough trainers for these would-be superstars: John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell) in Foxcatcher and Terry Fletcher (Simmons) in Whiplash, and both these trainers have questionable behaviour. Both films also feature more sympathetic mentor figures: Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in Foxcatcher and Andrew’s father Jim (Paul Reiser) in Whiplash, both of whom are more concerned about the well-being of their respective relatives than the professional success.
Fundamentally, both films are about the struggle over a soul, and it is here that Foxcatcher excels and Whiplash founders. Foxcatcher’s dour cinematography and measured direction, combined with the disturbing events and compressed performances of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, express the torment and confusion of its characters. Whiplash has slick editing and gives a striking presentation of obsession, but ultimately that is all it provides, a presentation. Foxcatcher expresses, Whiplash presents, and this difference means that the former has a creeping sense of menace and discomfort while the latter beats its drums in a flashy (not to mention bloody) but ultimately hollow display.
The most frustrating thing about Whiplash is that it does not appear to know what it is about. What is its attitude towards its protagonist’s obsession? I have no problem with ambiguity, but in order for that to work it must be presented as ambiguity rather than indecisiveness. Whiplash presents Andrew as so obsessed with drumming that he endures Fletcher’s relentless harrying and spurns the people around him, but the film neglects to make any statement about this. Is Andrew ultimately valorised or damned for his obsession? The film does not decide but not in such a way as to leave it open for the viewer, because Andrew’s arc is simultaneously too extreme and too triumphant, while Fletcher’s methods are so harsh as to be both a teacher-devoted-to-greatness and a vindictive bully. The film does not convince as an exercise in ambiguity because its focus is too narrow – the consequences of the characters’ actions are no more than incidental, especially in the perfunctory treatment of Andrew’s momentary girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). In trying to have its cake and eat it, Whiplash fails to do both.
Foxcatcher, on the other hand, powerfully expresses the dangers of having and pursuing everything. John Du Pont is one of the wealthiest men in America and also one of the loneliest, and sees his wrestling team as a way of obtaining the companionship he has always been denied. Yet so blunted is his personality that when he fails to obtain what he expects the results are damaging for himself and those around him. Dave is well-adjusted and balances his status as an Olympic champion with his role as a husband, father and brother. Mark, however, is a tragic figure wrestling (pun intended) with a sense of inadequacy and irrelevance, chasing the dream that Du Pont offers him regardless of the cost. Foxcatcher brings the viewer into intimate contact with these three men, allowing us to appreciate Du Pont’s skewed view of the world and Mark’s steady descent into loss and confusion. It is a grim and compelling vision of obsession, thanks largely to the sense of oppression that permeates the fabric of the film. As for Whiplash, not quite my tempo.