Charting the tragic course of an obsession, Foxcatcher is a powerful and all-consuming film that will leave audiences deeply unsettled. Questioning the nature of power and priviledge, as well as the sacrifice involved in competing at the highest sporting levels, what starts out as a simple sports-meets-true-crime story is transformed by director Bennett Miller into a stinging critique of class and influence. Steve Carell’s astonishing performance as almost-billionaire John du Pont is reason enough to see this film.
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenplay: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman.
Runtime: 129 minutes.
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Plot: Based on real events, Foxcatcher documents the obsessions of two men – Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz and his enigmatic sponsor John du Pont. Despite winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Schultz lives an impoverished life training for the next event and collecting modest checks as a high school speaker wherever he can. That changes with the financial support of du Pont, who relocates the US wrestling team to his extensive family grounds and attempts to style himself as a leader of men and champion of America. All does not go well.
Review: Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher dissects a unique question in a remarkable way – what drives an obsession? The film tells the true-crime story of wrestler Mark Schultz and philanthropist John du Pont in their quest for gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games; closely documenting their meeting and mutual purpose, as well as the dissolution of the partnership with rancour and eventually violence. The film is lengthy and somewhat glacially paced, but necessarily so – as it moves towards not only establishing a relationship between the two unique, wounded men but also casting a broader political critique about class and money within the United States. The performances are exemplary, if a little uneven in their demands on the respective actors – with Channing Tatum as Schultz playing the wounded innocent and mass of inarticulate muscle, while Steve Carell gives an astounding performance as his cryptic and awkward master. The film is worth seeing for Carell’s landmark performance alone, as the actor transforms not only his physicality but his reputation in the process, and supporting player Mark Ruffalo is equally unrecognisable but essential as the heart and moral core of the film.
The puzzle at the centre of the narrative is John du Pont himself – and Ruffalo as the concerned brother asks ‘what’s he get out of all this?’ It is strongly, intentionally reminiscent of the little noted but much reviled documentary Born Rich, where the director and heir to a fortune Jamie Johnson inquires of his social set how one can actually live when one has everything. On coming into his inheritance at his twenty first birthday, Johnson asks his father what he should do with his life and receives the response ‘why don’t you start a collection?’ It seems that this too is the question that confronts du Pont, and is thrown into sharp relief by a bravura scene aboard a helicopter where he prepares his protégé Schultz for delivering an introduction at a Washington fundraiser. Reading from the speech du Pont has written for him, Schultz stumblingly describes his mentor as an ‘ornithologist, highly respected author, world explorer, philatelist, and former pentathlete’ before the knife is twisted and Schulz discovers his own difficult childhood is put to work aggrandising du Pont the man. Indeed, being acknowledged as a ‘leader of men’ is what du Pont – in this phase of his life – yearns for. Yet the director skilfully, subtly leaves the audience with the feeling that this is merely another collection among many, and du Pont’s latest too-easily satiated passion. His mother considers the sport of wrestling ‘low’ and, in one of the few heavy-handed metaphors of the film, traffics instead in ‘horseflesh.’ At the centre of du Pont’s missionary zeal for his family’s place in America, and America’s place in the world, is a partially understood desire – perhaps not for love, which he seems to have abandoned as something a man of his position might authentically receive, but for respect. The paradox of his position is that the easier his respect is to buy – in stamps, birds, or wrestling – the more elusive it becomes.
But the story is also of Mark Schultz, and his older brother David. We meet Mark barely making ends meet, endlessly training for the next competition and only able to get by on meagre checks from speeches to disinterested teenagers. Speaking to a high school, he holds his gold medal aloft and hammers home that it is all about sacrifice – indeed Mark has honed his existence to a knife’s edge, stripping away anything but wrestling. Mark’s attraction to du Pont, apart from the enticing financial support he offers, is on some level the recognition that a single-minded obsession stems from a deep hurt and humiliation. The film, in both cases, leaves the causes deftly unstated but the effects clear enough – when Mark wins gold, he makes good on all of the bad parts of his life he desperately attempts to strip away. The end has justified the appalling cost of the means, making him a man too close to du Pont for comfort. This inspires intense loyalty between the two, but almost as inevitably an equally intense fear and hatred that is certain to explode at the close of the film. Only David, his brother and coach, is able to act as a moral counterweight and heart of the film – tragically paying the highest price on behalf of his brother.
It is hard to believe that the story of Mark Schultz and John du Pont hasn’t been adapted for screen before; indeed, all Miller had to do was cast with an eye to resemblance and let the events unfold as they did. But the skill of the film lies in the details that elevate it to a stinging class critique – as du Pont is a man not just served by money and industry, but also by government and those flunkies seeking his favour. The local police force embraces him as an honorary officer and allows him to participate in training and operations – one scene has him target shooting on his extensive property, alongside the local force. The sense lingers that du Pont searches for a community of interest that will embrace him; yet his money, and the fact that he doesn’t have to make a living from it, will always mark him as the dilettante interloper. Carell is exceptional in his awkward characterisation of du Pont; for example, the momentary pauses in social interaction where du Pont freezes not knowing what to do, and adds a callous non-sequitur of ‘good, good’ to retain control of the situation. Tatum as Schultz is differently blessed in these situations; able to furrow his brow in big, dumb expressionless as a man of whom nothing else is expected. Yet the history, the money, and the grossly attendant power weighs on du Pont as a man in a mould he sporadically embraces but is unsuited for. It instead translates into childish demands for an M-113 armoured personnel carrier with accompanying mounted machine gun; an order the military (no doubt, with local political pressure) amazingly complies with. Everything is far too easily gotten for du Pont; and that is the key difference with Schultz that drives them apart.
The film ends with a final violence and consequence that movie-goers who are distantly familiar with the case will already know. The contemporary tragedy is that the innocent are ultimately and almost incidentally punished; the key figures endure, degraded but alive as almost human loose ends within the moral frame. Frye and Futterman’s functional script leaves these events to a brief post-script and a quick Google – noting du Pont’s death in custody in 2010. The details of the truth are, as always, stranger than fiction as the bulk of du Pont’s estimated $200 million fortune was left almost at random to the Bulgarian Wrestler Valentin Yordanov Dimitrov. The Foxcatcher estate itself was eventually raised and turned into a large housing development, while it was incidentally discovered that du Pont had ordered the interiors of his buildings painted black in symbolic acknowledgement of something known only to himself. He was buried in his wrestling singlet, according to his will. John du Pont himself was not the heir apparent, but only the youngest member of a dynastic abundance. His position inevitably dictated that being left at a loose end would be his undoing.
We are left with the open question; one which is too easy to turn into moralistic comfort on the dangers of getting what you want and the poor plight of the rich. Miller’s triumph in Foxcatcher is counterpointing these two figures and relating a tale that avoids all of the clichéd pitfalls of a lesser adaptation. In Mark Schultz and John du Pont we see how our limitations can equally doom us and save us from ourselves; and that the destruction of our obsessions may not be meted out equally.
Rating: Four stars.