Quick Reviews: Good Will Hunting and Foxcatcher

good will hunting foxcatcher

What better way to celebrate the upcoming Oscar’s than by watching 2 movies about white men and their tears?


Up Today: Good Will Hunting and Foxcatcher

Quick Take: Though it features some strong performances as well as a number of genuinely touching moments, Good Will Hunting is simply far too bland to live up all the hype surrounding it. Though slow at times, Foxcatcher is a dark, intriguing, and well-acted character study that succeeds despite its missteps and that is both haunting and intelligently subtle. 

Good Will Hunting (1997)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Watched on Feb 03
I’m probably the last person in this country to see this film, but I’m reviewing it anyway.

*Groans* Why the hell Good Will Hunting has a 97 on RT and received 9 Oscar nominations is beyond me; I suppose it’s for the same inexplicable reason that some people choose vanilla ice cream over mint chip or white cake over chocolate. Buh. Yes, the film has its merits, but they are hardly enough to make up for the fact that Good Will Hunting is basically a fancied-up, high-budget lifetime movie with with dudes.

While I can appreciate the film’s point that it can be hard for people to believe in themselves until the right person shows them how (as well as some of the relationship dynamics and personal experiences that it explores), the film is simply too vanilla, too predictable, and too uninteresting for all of the hype. In fact, some of the parallels in the film (in Will’s various relationships and between him and Sean) are so obvious as to veer a bit too closely to the world of the amateur. I can usually forgive such narrative shortcomings if a film has enough thought-provoking and/or well-written characters (or powerful enough visuals) to make up for it, but Good Will Hunting falls short in these areas as well. Had the Van Sant focused more or less entirely on Will Hunting (of the god awful title) and Sean Maguire, I may have been willing to accept more of the film’s flaws. As it stands, there’s too much filler in the film, and it simply does not give viewers enough to think on or to sink their teeth into.

I was also bothered by the overly sentimental score as well as by the film’s hard-to-watch use of slow motion in an early scene. Things like that only served to reinforce my impression that this film resembles a slice of white bread slathered with cheese much more closely than would be ideal.

Though it’s underwhelming in the end, Good Will Hunting does feature strong performances from Damon and Minnie Driver as well as an incredibly memorable one from Robin Williams. The scenes Williams appears in or in which Damon plays opposite Williams or Driver are the best in the film. Williams in particular manages to convey a great deal of emotion without ever being over-the-top. He brings a certain complexity and spark of life to the film, and I can understand why he was so widely praised for his work in it. Still, as solid as Williams, Driver, and Damon are, there is much more to a film than its performances.

Foxcatcher (2014)
Directed by Bennett Miller
Watched on Feb 08

On paper, Foxcatcher actually has quite a bit in common with Good Will Hunting. It’s populated almost exclusively by men, at least one of which had a pretty horrible childhood. It focuses on a sort of mentor/mentee/father/son relationship too (the one in Foxcatcher is far creepier and more abusive, but still). Such similarities don’t extend very deeply however, and Good Will Hunting and Foxcatcher are two VERY different films (I’m only comparing them at all, because I happened to watch them so close to each other). For Foxcatcher, at least, this is a good thing.

Unlike Good Will HuntingFoxcatcher is based on a true story and, perhaps as a result, it is also far gloomier. Miller’s latest work is a dark, cold, and pessimistically (or perhaps, realistically) serious film that explores complex and often opaque characters and the dynamics between them in a smart and bleakly atmospheric manner. Foxcatcher is not an easy film to watch—it deliberately makes viewers uncomfortable for nearly its entire running time—but it sticks with you in a way that I admire. A day after watching the film, I am already feeling compelled to watch it again. I’m not entirely sure why, but I like a film that’s hard to shake. Foxcatcher may be dismal, devastating, and even a little slow at times, but it’s also strangely alluring.

For the most part, Foxcatcher is a very well-acted film that features noteworthy performances from all three of its leads. As the bizarre, quietly monstrous, and often inscrutable John du Pont, Carell gives a strong and memorable performance (it’s been clear for years that he is a talented actor, but this is certainly his darkest and most demanding dramatic role to date). As du Pont, Carell is disturbingly frightening and decidedly pathetic all at once. John is an unwell man; whether he was made unwell by his extreme wealth and the society around him is somewhat unclear, but he is certainly not ordinary (and thus, is also unpredictable). No, he isn’t the hero, legend, father, patriot, or friend that he wants to be seen as, but he certainly is one set apart. He is an outsider wherever he goes and seems almost innately incapable of real human connection; at the same time, he craves acceptance and esteem quite intensely—Carell conveys all of this quite well.

The primary problem I have with Carell’s performance is his awful prosthetic nose. While the makeup he wears in the film is not his fault, it does detract from his success (and from the film overall). It’s distracting to the point of being slightly ridiculous, and there really was no reason for it. Yes, the real John du Pont did have a rather large nose, but his face wasn’t what made him the intriguing character or the grotesque figure that he is portrayed as in the film.

Tatum and Ruffalo also give strong performances. As someone whose been pretty vocal about her dislike of the fact that Channing Tatum has the career that he does, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of his work in this film. The scenes that feature Ruffalo and Tatum are many of the best that Foxcatcher has to offer. There is an intensity, a complex intimacy, and a physicality between them that makes for moving and compelling cinema.

Perhaps the main problem with this film is that it (and whatever it’s trying to say) all ends up a little too murky and muddled in the end. This is particularly true if you try to see the film as some sort of macrocosmic American fable, though I personally think that it works best on a microcosmic and individual level. The film also employs a sort of distant and almost meandering storytelling style that some might find frustrating.

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. I’m sorry I’ve been posting so many reviews lately (opposed to analysis/meta, which I prefer). Having a Princeton degree that’s been sitting in your closet for 8 months while you live with your parents, are only semi-employed, and rarely get to go outside has got me in a strange head space that makes it hard for me to focus long enough to put together a more essay-like post at the moment (tmi?). I’m working on it though.

As always, feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you think of this post, the films I’ve discussed, or this blog in general.

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