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Bennett Miller: The “Invisible” Auteur Behind ‘Foxcatcher,’ ‘Moneyball’ & ‘Capote’

Bennett Miller: The "Invisible" Auteur Behind 'Foxcatcher,' 'Moneyball' & 'Capote'

It feels appropriate to write this in the dull early morning. Through the window, the trees are nearly bare, the sky flat and gray; it will not change at all until night falls. If Terrence Malick owns a kind of harvest time golden hour, then perhaps Bennett Miller, director of “Foxcatcher,” (our review) owns this slate, damp, late autumnal dawn. It’s the color of the beginning of his feature debut, “Capote,” as a car drives up to a house, eerily still amid miles of empty Kansas farmland. It’s the color of the skies that hover over a deserted Fenway Park as Billy Beane is made an offer he can’t refuse and does. “More clouds of gray… than any Russian play… ” warbles Timothy Speed Levitch tunelessly as Miller’s black and white 1998 documentary “The Cruise” opens, and that same film ends with a hazy, low-contrast aerial shot of Manhattan as though seen through a fog. And it is the time of day that Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) drives his meager belongings out to the sprawling, sparsely populated Foxcatcher ranch and to John DuPont (Steve Carell), the man who will stain his life. Schultz passes by sad, flatpack suburban homes on his way toward a future he is scared of but also heartbreakingly eager for, and a stars and stripes hangs limply from a flagpole; by the dawn’s early light. Hopelessness and patriotism in one fleeting image.

“Foxcatcher” is not a film you can talk anyone into. You can extol its virtues, but every word of praise you reach for is one a detractor can see as code, a euphemism for something less flattering. Rather like when an estate agent describes a new apartment as “bijou” or “cozy” and we all know to think “small, cramped,” fans like me can go into raptures over the film’s deliberate pace and thoughtfully chilling atmosphere, and the less enamored will hear “slow, boring and a total downer.” And that’s fine. We don’t all have to like the same movies. But what should at the very least be clear is that with “Foxcatcher,” Bennett Miller has earned a place in the vanguard of contemporary American filmmakers who can be called (and I really hate this word but there is no other) auteurs. OK, some of you may be less than bowled over by the controversial assertion that wow, the previously Oscar-nominated, 2014 Cannes Best Director winner is “a good filmmaker,” but awards and nominations aside, it simply doesn’t feel like Miller is mentioned in the same hushed, reverent breath as some of his more overtly authorial contemporaries. And that’s interesting, because now after three narrative films, and four features in total, I think we can state that Miller is an auteur. He’s just an invisible one.

As critics, we see whole movies, but are often tasked with immediately breaking them down into their constituent parts. As though criticism were an act of annihilation, the fragmentation of the thing you loved into ever smaller pieces until it’s dust or atoms. This is particularly the case with “Foxcatcher,” which after the largely positive response from Cannes, quickly became less of a conversation piece as a film than for its component elements, especially its performances. “Steve Carell was great!” “What’s with his nose?” “Was Tatum better or worse?” “Hey, you guys are all forgetting about Mark Ruffalo!” What usually stops that chattery impulse from obliterating the film at its core is an acknowledgment of the authorship of the film by its director —essentially the binding agent for all the various aspects of the film, and a great deal more than that if it’s someone like Paul Thomas Anderson or Christopher Nolan.

But Miller, awarding bodies aside, tends not to get this kind of recognition in the discourse around his films: “Capote” became all about Philip Seymour Hoffman; “Moneyball” was a troubled production, once attached to Steven Soderbergh that defied to the odds largely due to Brad Pitt’s involvement and gave us a surprise “serious” role for comic actor Jonah Hill; and now the overriding contribution of “Foxcatcher” to the season is in which Oscar acting categories its three central performers should campaign (not to endorse the praising of one good performance at the expense of another, but Alison Willmore’s take on Channing Tatum for Buzzfeed is nonetheless excellent). But “Foxcatcher” feels like a remarkably whole film, one that is so huge in import and reach that it is almost inevitable that we try to dice it into more manageable portions to talk about, but also one that is done a disservice by that very approach. Mainly because those critiques tend to ignore or overlook or simply not see Miller’s unique authorial imprint.

One of the main issues is that Miller’s visual style is virtually transparent. Not having formed a particular attachment to any one DP (“Foxcatcher” was shot by Greig Fraser; “Moneyball” by Wally Pfister; “Capote” by Adam Kimmel), it’s not like we can glance at a Miller film without prior knowledge and know it’s his (which is apparently the acid test by which auteur status is accorded, though we’ve noticed no one ever actually wants to sit this test for fear they’d get it wrong). It’s not like he favors dutch angles, lens flares, long tracking shots or non-metaphorical slo-mo explosions that people walk away from without looking back. And in other areas, like editing and scoring, “Capote” and “Moneyball” may share DNA, but “Foxcatcher” is again a total change-up.

In fact, the throughlines of Miller’s career are much more thematic than they are stylistic, though certain tics of performance, like the odd, affected voices of Timothy in “The Cruise,” Hoffman in “Capote” and Carell in “Foxcatcher” and certain motifs like those leaden gray, oppressive skies do recur. Each one of his four films has dealt, as he himself pointed out in our interview, with “outsider-type characters…people living in worlds where they don’t really fit. In each case, there’s also a great ambition that is meant to remedy the problems or damages of their lives.” But it goes deeper than that: for Miller’s central characters, great ambition is the problem. It’s hard to think of another contemporary American director who has taken as his primary theme the ugliness, the tragedy, the pathos of ambition, a quality all too often regarded as an inherent good. It’s practically un-American. Especially when, as in the case of DuPont, the ambition isn’t for anything as easily quantifiable as “a lot of money,” which he already has, but for greatness in the eyes of others, of which he has exactly none.

There’s a kinship there, between DuPont and Mark Schultz, and a contrast between them and Dave (Ruffalo) in terms of ambition, with Dave signifying innate, uncomplicated, almost effortless talent, all but unconscious of how his simple excellence at their chosen sport might have corroded his younger brother’s sense of himself. Very roughly, perhaps Dave is analogous to Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee in “Capote” —offscreen, she writes one of the greatest books of the twentieth century and at the one party in the film that is thrown to celebrate her, all Truman can do is get drunk alone in a corner and slur “I frankly don’t see what all the fuss is about” to no one in particular. And even though “Moneyball,” in being the sole studio film that Miller has been involved with to date, is something of an outlier in his filmography (inasmuch as so short a list can have an outlier), still we see many of these conflicts in Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane. Perhaps the most outwardly “heroic” of Miller’s protagonists so far, Beane is still a deeply ambivalent, aloof character as much embittered by baseball as he is in love with it.

That’s another thing all these characters share —their thirst for self-actualization is so great that it’s no longer clear if they even like the means by which they get there. Does Beane even like baseball if he’s so willing to tear into its traditions to win? Does Dave truly love wrestling or does he just want to be as good as his brother? Does Capote even believe himself when he says “I did all I can” in reference to saving the lives of the men he needed to die in order to finish his book? Perhaps Miller scholars in later years (and there ought to be such things) will group these three films together as his “Ambition Trilogy.” 

Of course the great ambition of the protagonist would in each case be justified if those stories ended differently. But Miller’s choice of story is really a choice of ending, and that’s another area where we can see his fingerprints. “Foxcatcher” leads up to a murder, but never turns into a murder mystery (in fact the killing itself remains oddly, uncannily mysterious) and never becomes a courtroom drama. And while there may be a much more salacious, visceral film to be made out of the story of the richest man in America to ever be convicted of murder, Miller’s not the guy to make it —as he said about the currents of homoeroticism, insanity and substance abuse that he includes but doesn’t necessarily exploit, “the atmosphere might have been charged with unacknowledged drives like that, which to make more of it, I think, would have done a disservice to the film, and I think it’s very easy to tip over and go, “Oh, that’s what it’s about,” or, “Oh, it’s about the drugs. Oh it’s mental illness.”

Furthermore, Tatum’s Mark Schultz, the other portrait of ego vs. insecurity at the film’s heart, crucially does not enact the uplifting biopic tactic of turning his personal tragedy around and building a new successful life for himself, garlanded in even more glory. It’s difficult to believe Miller would have been interested in the story if he had. Instead, as Miller said of the real Schultz in an interview with Aint it Cool, “he’s just a very alone person, a very lonely person. He had been writing his story, which was awfully different from what you just saw, because I read the 80 pages that he had written, which was like an axe-grinding, lop-sided version that didn’t incorporate any aspect of his own corruption or drugs or anything that he might be ashamed of.” Of course for Miller, Mark’s corruption and his own complicity in it is precisely the point, and the aloneness that follows is the price exacted for daring to dream so big.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Miller would have even taken the “Moneyball” gig if Billy Beane had ended up accepting the Red Sox job and winning the World Series. How about if “In Cold Blood” had been the start of a shelf-full of completed novels and a decade or two of ongoing creative fulfillment for Capote? It seems crucial for Miller that these are men defined as much by the anticlimax of their final acts (even if we only get that information in terse epilogue cards) as they are by the brief flashes of glory that spark from them on the way there. Ambition achieved is not Miller’s bag, or rather that’s not quite where he ends the story —it ends instead at just the moment that the price for that achievement comes due for payment, and it is costly indeed.

Miller is a filmmaker preternaturally concerned with story. So much so that his signature, if he has one, seems to be a desire to clear away the things that might block us from seeing the story clearly —fussy camerawork, heavyhanded music cues, flashy editing and so forth. Of “Foxcatcher” he has said a few times “it’s not a film that tells a story so much as it is a film that observes it.” And that is true, but ordinarily, even where a film is entirely observational, we’re given cues and prompts as to what the director wants us to think or conclude. In “Capote,” Miller did a little of that; there are moments too pointed in showing us Truman’s ungovernable, monstrous ego to be mistaken. By “Moneyball” it feels like he’s taken himself further out of the equation, finding a way to be both absorbed in and totally ambivalent toward this scheme of Beane’s and Brand’s to ruin/save baseball, while allowing Beane himself to walk a knife edge of likeability even though he’s played by the deeply likeable Pitt. And now with “Foxcatcher,” it feels like he’s achieved the ideal of this kind of observational storytelling —as a point of view, as a moral adjudicator of the characters in the film, Miller seems almost completely absent. He is not, of course —he’s in every frame, but he has covered his tracks meticulously, like a man walking backward across a beach, making sure to smooth out his footsteps as he goes, the better for us to feel like we’re the first to discover the scene.

That’s perhaps why I feel so strongly about defending Miller’s right to the a-word. What perhaps detractors see as lack or emptiness can also be seen as a very thought-out space that he has been considerate enough to create for the viewer. That is a pretty rare thing in modern filmmaking, requiring a degree of confidence that more showy or outwardly stylized filmmakers don’t necessarily have. Miller simply presents his films with unfashionable sincerity, as though saying “here is a story that I found fascinating, perhaps you will too.” Only, as in the case of “Foxcatcher,” communicating that fascination without narrative handholding or judgement takes time. “The manner in which the film communicates is subtle, and the style of the filmmaking is very unforgiving, and it really just required refining,” said Miller of the protracted editing process behind “Foxcatcher,” but he could have been talking about the whole extended gestation period.

In fact, it is the most refined of all his films, having been potentially ready to go before “Moneyball” and having been revised and reworked in the years since. And it wasn’t just revision that helped it become the subtle, vast, chilling character piece it is. As Tatum said in this Vulture piece, “[eight years ago] the way Bennett talked about this wildly dark character weirded me out a little bit, to be honest with you. I was super-young and I just didn’t get it. In a way, I think, thank God it didn’t come to fruition then, because I don’t know what it would have turned out to be.” And as much as Tatum had grown as an actor since then, so had Miller as a director.

Miller has made a series of precariously self-invented men, “tainted by notions of entitlement and exceptionalism” his stock in trade. And each successive film has marked a progression on from the last —not necessarily in quality of performance or craft (which is pretty unimpeachable across all three narrative features), but in terms of Miller’s evolution. Whether “Foxcatcher” goes down in the annals of cinema as bracketing a thematic trilogy for the filmmaker, from which he moves into entirely different territory, or whether it will be part of a continuum of stories about the “American concept” by which we suffer from “anxiety about your station in life, because wherever you are, there is a station above you, and with it now is the understanding that the only thing keeping you from it is not some law or societal construct —it’s your own inadequacy,” it feels like Miller has stepped up a league with his fourth film. Amongst all the other For Your Considerations that you are about to be bombarded with in relation to “Foxcatcher,” allow us to submit one more, and ask you to consider when you go see it, whether “Foxcatcher” may mark the dawn of Miller’s fully-fledged authorial status. A chill dawn under a heavy gray sky, naturally, but that doesn’t mean the day won’t bring something remarkable.

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