Oscars: James Toback on Why 'Foxcatcher' "Deserves a Special Award" (Guest Column)

James Toback

An Oscar nominee for 1991's 'Bugsy,' the author argues that Bennett Miller's new film is "a daring act of hypnosis" that exists in "the territory between the conscious and the unconscious mind."

As a onetime Academy Award nominee (I lost), I follow each year's Oscar season with a mixture of appreciation, good will, disbelief, contempt and — occasionally — much as I am loath to admit it, envy. "Why am I not up there? What about the masterpieces I have created, which have been insufficiently worshipped?" No praise is ever quite enough.

So I am not in the habit of open advocacy or campaigning. Indeed, despite occasionally attending Oscar lunches and watching the screeners sent out by distributors, I am usually a relatively quiet witness to the proceedings, trying to root for my friends and taking an embarrassing pleasure in the defeat of my enemies.

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But this year is different. My friend, Bennett Miller, has made a film, Foxcatcher, which is so markedly distinct from every other movie out there that I feel it should receive a special award for uniqueness. It is not filmed theater. It is not a movie of dazzling effects. It is not even — like Moneyball, Miller's previous film — an excellent but ultimately straightforward traditional film. It is a work of cinematic art. It is a daring act of hypnosis. If you lend yourself to the mood evoked from the opening moments — a mood of isolation, dream living on the edge of nightmare, sanity on the precipice of madness, order on the edge of chaos, dread as trigger to murder — you will be haunted by the film for weeks, perhaps months or even years.

There are rational things it is legitimate to say about the film. Its language is lean and subtly lacerating and sprinkled with wit. The images are austere and elegant and ominous. The performances — by Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller and, especially, by Steve Carell — are actually not performances at all but fusions of role player and role. It is a bold and original social document. The cunning and savvy portrayal of vast old wealth and privilege in America has rarely been achieved with such icy precision. And it is a searing round-robin of psychological portraits with shocking reversals and revelations lending support to the ineluctable narrative.

But none of these virtues — invaluable as each is — gets to the heart of what separates Foxcatcher from all other films this year. It is the first American film in recent memory that exists without a single lapsed moment in the territory between the conscious and unconscious mind where all of us live with greatest intensity and mystery and irrational truth. It transports us into that realm as only pure film can and it holds us there and lays permanent claim on our own private dashed hopes and deepest fears.

Director and screenwriter James Toback, who was Oscar-nominated for best original screenplay for 1991's Bugsy, most recently directed the documentary Seduced and Abandoned.

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