Foxcatcher Is An Intense Portrait Of Exceptionalism and EntitlementPosted: November 15, 2014
Through the Alan Moore comic From Hell (which in turn borrowed from a Douglas Adams book that I should probably read myself), I was introduced to the concept of what we can call holistic forensics. The idea is that to properly solve a crime, one must actually “solve” the society (or culture) in which the crime occurred. This is the first concept that came to mind as I tried to corral my thoughts about Foxcatcher. Bennett Miller’s latest film is a clinical procedural that, rather than directly address the circumstances of the climactic crime, explores the sad and desperate world around these people to demonstrate what could lead to such a seemingly random tragedy. Clinical in its perspective but heartbreaking in its content, Foxcatcher is an unsettling and impactful movie, not to mention a great one.
The film certainly takes its time to establish the major players, and makes sure we understand exactly where these men are in their lives before these events unfold. We see Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) go through his single-minded day training as a wrestler, and when we first meet John du Pont (Steve Carell) he’s tottering around in a huge-yet-empty mansion, with no one but servants around. Miller, along with writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, establishes some clear parallels between du Pont and Mark Schultz right away. When Mark gives a speech at an elementary school, he has to tell the receptionist that he won a gold medal at the Olympics, while the “famous” du Pont name has no impact when it’s first given to Mark or anyone else. It seems that both of these men are part of their own little worlds that mean nothing to most other people, which makes their grand aspirations all the more pathetic. They seize on the idea of claiming glory for America by winning wrestling medals, oblivious to the fact that no one really cares. And while the du Ponts clearly build up their own significance to the world, it’s just as clear that they are irrelevant to the public.
The sadness of this is driven home even more by the fact that both Mark and du Pont are the bungled and the botched of their respective worlds. Even though Mark won a gold medal himself, he’s always ignored in favor of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), and his drive to be the best in the world is at least as motivated by a desire to get out of Dave’s shadow as it is to just be the best. Meanwhile, du Pont seems to be driven by a desire to both prove his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) wrong, but also to earn her respect. Both men aspire to run away from the influences that they think are ruining them, even though doing so will only make their problems worse. For Mark, getting out of his brother’s shadow might make him feel like more of an individual but it also robs him of the coaching he needs to be the best in the first place. For du Pont, attempting to prove his worth to his mother with wrestling is a fool’s errand, as she has nothing but contempt for the sport. It’s love/hate relationships that define the narrative, but none more so than the one between Mark and du Pont themselves.
But while Mark’s relationship with his brother and du Pont’s relationship with his mother are constantly contradictory, the relationship between the two men is one that gradually deteriorates over the course of the film. Early in the film, when both men are feeling cowed and undermined by their loved ones, each sees the other as their salvation. Mark has the opportunity to train and work away from his brother, and du Pont sees a talented athlete he can mold to fit his own ambitions. And for a time, that shared drive works, resulting in Mark winning gold at a world wrestling championship, and giving both men a chance to taste the victory they crave. But of course this victory isn’t enough; Mark still took advice and support from his brother, and du Pont still hasn’t changed his mother’s mind about his hobby. Once the high of winning fades the relationship turns ugly, with du Pont domineering Mark even as Mark loses his competitive edge. du Pont begins to focus more on building up his own ego in pathetic fixed matches while Mark is left on the sidelines, becoming more detached from his goals. It becomes clear that du Pont is more focused on his own gratification than with helping Mark or bringing gold to the USA, and when Mark decides that he’s done with du Pont, and that he wants to go elsewhere… things get scary.
Of course there is one other major relationship in the film, namely the one between du Pont and Dave. While the du Pont/Mark relationship might define the majority of the narrative, it’s the quiet conflict between Dave and du Pont that most directly influences the climax. It’s clear that Dave figures du Pont out almost immediately. There are moments where he watches du Pont with a mixture of bemusement and concern, aware that du Pont’s influence is as dangerous as his behavior is silly. Meanwhile, du Pont’s opinion of Dave is split. From the beginning, even when du Pont approaches Mark, he’s asking about whether Dave will join them, and continues to push for Dave despite repeatedly being told no. And yet once Dave is fully involved and actually begins to try and improve Mark’s performance, du Pont becomes jealous and angry, realizing that Dave has the sort of presence and knowledge as a coach that he could never have himself. du Pont ends up torn between his need for Dave’s talents and his inability to control things when Dave is around, and when he loses control of his lapdog Mark, du Pont turns his resentment towards Dave. He blames him for ruining the dynamic with Mark while also being envious of the relationships that Dave has.
Aside from all of these emotional relationship layers, there also seems to be some sly commentary/reflection of America as a concept (or a tradition) as well. du Pont is constantly presenting himself, his efforts, and Team Foxcatcher as a bastion of American exceptionalism, fighting to give America the glory it deserves. It’s the sort of flowery speechifying that is frequently mocked on The Daily Show, that sounds corny except for the complete conviction with which du Pont says it. The absurdity of it only becomes more clear when the less-committed Mark tries to parrot it to his brother. And du Pont seems to be surrounded by this sort of nigh-religious American iconography: he visits Valley Forge for inspiration, and purchases military equipment for his private collection. This sort of reverence for America is also mirrored by the aggrandizement of the du Pont family itself. Mark is given a video celebrating “America’s First Dynasty”, among other bits of weirdness. There’s also something thematically relevant to the fact that the du Pont family (as the video tells us) first made its fortune helping to arm and equip the American military. They might have been serving their country but they were also gaining immense personal profit, which goes hand-in-hand with du Pont’s wrestling obsession. Supposedly it’s meant to provide America with glory, but it’s really all about du Pont’s ego and delusions.
By exposing and exploring all of these elements, Miller and his writers paint an intense and upsetting picture. It’s a picture full of entitlement, ego and inferiority, that maybe suggests that American exceptionalism is a product of frustrated people trying to elevate themselves by association. Foxcatcher is a film that uses traditional rise-and-fall storytelling in the service of a much less traditional approach to a true life event. Bennett Miller alters details and eschews more straightforward depictions of his characters, but in the process is able to expose something real and impactful about these men and what they represent. It’s a character study, but not just of one man, but of a messy tangle of personalities and human flaws that have to be assessed as a whole in order to paint the complete picture of what happened at Foxcatcher Farm that one winter morning. It’s tragic and it’s tense, and as a movie it is terrific.