Around Christmas each year my parents would force (yes “force”) my brother and I to visit their old friends and their families, bringing with us a tin of mother’s oatmeal cookies. The older folks (25 or so) would talk of old times while we kids who did not know each other, would stare at each other with controlled disdain. I remember how odd it all was. I remember other people’s houses had their own smells and the furniture was, in my mind, depressing. The cookies they served were just wrong. How could people live like this? Strange places, strange kids, strange parents. I was always glad when this awkward holiday tradition was over and we were home where things weren’t always good, but where they were comfortable.
Thank goodness, I’m over that particular childhood peculiarity. Generally I love the diversity that exists in the human species. But watching these two movies I revisited this sense of unease, prompted by the oddness of others, especially others in an eternal state of disconnection. This double feature is an odd pairing, two films inhabited by people who live in bubbles that glance each other in passing.
Foxcatcher validates the cliché, “truth is stranger than fiction.” John du Pont, ornithologist, philatelist and philanthropist as well as having a wrestling obsession is a member of the du Pont dynasty, probably America’s richest family at the time. As John Steve Carrel) provides a portrait of a convincingly strange and needy, gun-toting loser whose mother had to buy him a friend when he was young. Nothing much changed as he grew older. Only now he could buy his own friend. He sought out, manipulated and essentially bought a young and vulnerable Olympic wrestler ostensibly to groom for the Olympics. The motive is iffy and subject to interpretation. The new protégé, (Channing Tatum), has self-worth problems of his own. He grew up in the shadow of his more talented older brother (Mark Ruffalo) and welcomed du Pont’s attention. The new emotionally wounded friends were destined to destroy each other. Vanessa Redgrave played the cold, wealthy matriarch who could barely tolerate being in the same room as her son. Bennett Miller directed this critically hailed film. The cast is flawless.
American Beauty validates another cliché, that truth is often found in fiction. Away from the chilled and rarefied air of the the upper class in Foxcatcher, we descend into the middle class, its hunger for conformity, its silly materially measured success and its great capacity for and encouragement of insincerity. Kevin Spacey plays a man bored with his own mediocrity and the values of the living dead who surround him. He wants out. While his current life has left its share of collateral damage, getting out isn’t without wreckage. He has a neurotic daughter, a disconnected wife and damaged neighbors. With help from a solid cast — Annette Bening, Chris Cooper and Wes Bentley among them — the film reminds us that even with salvation, we don’t get out alive. Sam Mendes directed the multiple award-winning 1999 classic.
Both films provide a smooth but far from simple glimpse into the complicated lives of their inhabitants. There are no simple answers. Right and wrong are not self-evident. As crime films of a sort, guilt and innocence are nonetheless hard to parse. Both are movies you might like to savor or discuss. Both, it seems to me, take us to unpleasant worlds, its inhabitants bumping into each other blindly. Perhaps you should sip your wine until the credits role.