Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Produced by Anthony Bregman, Megan Ellsion, John Kilik, Bennett Miller; directed by Bennett Miller; screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; cinematography by Greig Frase; music by Rob Simonsen; editing by Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, and Conor O’Neill; production design by Jess Gonchor; art direction by Brad Ricker; starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, and Vanessa Redgrave. Blu-ray and DVD, color and B&W, 134 min., 2015. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
When I first saw its advertising campaign, I assumed that Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher would be merely another “true crime” film, a kind of follow-up to his Capote (2005), a work that chronicles, in part, the seamy side of the rich and famous, a not very enthralling topic. Today, Foxcatcher strikes me as one of the few important Hollywood films of the last season for its analytical vision and its sense of the repression associated with wealth and power in America.
As a former Pennsylvanian, I am very familiar with the film’s story—the John du Pont murder case of 1996. The film is insightful in a way that slaps the face of the sensational and imperceptive media that gave us saturation coverage of the incident but, as usual, provided little understanding. In the Eighties, millionaire John du Pont (wonderfully portrayed, under thick prosthetics, by Steve Carell, who incarnates a monstrous gnome), an heir to the mammoth DuPont Chemical empire, took a shine to the sport of wrestling and brought Olympic medal winners Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to his sprawling Foxcatcher Farm estate in Newtown Square. Things gradually go awry; [Spoiler Alert] du Pont dismisses Mark and ultimately murders Dave Schultz in one of the more sensational criminal cases at the end of the last century.
The film’s sense of class antagonism is introduced immediately. Against the opening credits, we see home movies taken in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties showing members of the du Pont family engaging in fox hunts, the preferred sport of the ruling class. As foxes are turned loose to face the inexorable power of men, horses, and firearms, one recalls Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), and its sense of the leisure class spending inordinate time and money on entertainment that spells the destruction of nature—or nothing more than using up time.
The narrative opens with the nonverbal Mark Shultz giving an uninspiring talk to grammar school children about the patriotic virtues inscribed in the sport of wrestling. Later, a payroll clerk hands him his twenty-dollar fee, promptly spent at a burger joint. Mark’s existence is clearly and literally hand to mouth. He lives alone in a gloomy upstairs apartment. His brother Dave has a family and a fair-to-middling working-class life as a hometown wrestling coach. Out of the blue, Mark gets a call from an authoritarian male voice telling him that John du Pont requires his presence. The young man is taken aback—he has no knowledge of the name “du Pont” but needs a ticket somewhere.
Complaints have been registered about the film’s unremittingly bleak tone, but its overcast look, suggesting not the Fallen World of crime/horror films from Se7en (1995) to the Saw franchise, but instead the general bizarrerie and overwhelming repression saturating du Pont’s world, and the America of the Reagan era, is always hinted at obliquely. The mise en scène of Foxcatcher is that of a universal sepulcher, from the du Pont sitting rooms to the countryside that should read (based on my memory) as overwhelmingly verdant. The film’s worldview is remarkably well realized by Miller and cinematographer Grieg Fraser.
As Mark is flown by private jet to du Pont’s estate, a factotum tells him that du Pont would have flown him himself, but was called in by the Newtown Square police “for tactical support.” What? Mark has stepped through the looking glass. Much later, we see du Pont practicing target shooting with state troopers. We might assume that the men are at the police barracks—but no, they are on du Pont’s estate. In another scene, du Pont takes delivery of a military tank—a soldier hands him a receipt as if the tank were a UPS parcel. Outraged that the tank isn’t mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun as promised, an outraged du Pont swats the receipt out of the soldier’s hand as if ripped off by a big-box store. There is an important point here. Du Pont and his ilk can indulge in such dangerous excess because, with their enormous wealth, they are the state apparatus: the military, the police. They helped build these U.S. institutions to protect their interests, an old-time leftist notion neatly achieved in these scenes.
As Mark settles into Foxcatcher Farms, the head factotum gives him a video called The DuPont Dynasty, its subtitle informing Mark that they are “the nation’s wealthiest family,” as if Mark is supposed to stand up and cheer. But he essentially does, as he embraces du Pont’s hyperpatriotism. The video takes Mark and us through the du Pont history of gunpowder and arms manufacture, the family having fled France at the end of the eighteenth century because of their less-than-revolutionary values. We see images of du Ponts standing by cannons through all the wars of the last two centuries. The stills show du Ponts sitting with U.S. presidents in boardrooms. It is too bad there is no mention of the DuPont company inventing napalm bombs during World War II. But the point is clear: the DuPont fortune was derived from an empire of death.
When John du Pont returns to the mansion to stroke Mark’s ego, he announces his plan to place Mark (and, ideally, brother Dave, the more-talented man) in charge of a wrestling team to restore somehow “America’s greatness” and repair its damaged virtues. He takes Mark on a tour of Valley Forge Military Park during a misty, eerie dawn during which he repeats his ideological outlook, assuring himself that Mark is in philosophical lockstep.
But the formation of the team in a mammoth gymnasium he has built for his new hobby becomes problematic. The suspicious Dave Schultz will not bring his family to the estate until du Pont offers him an enormous sum of money that Dave simply cannot refuse. Du Pont is revealed as a cocaine addict who teaches Mark to snort enormous lines of the drug. Preparing Mark on how to deliver an introduction to him at a high-society gala, Du Pont tells him to say that Du Pont is a “philanthropist and philatelist,” which is to say he is good at nothing and has accomplished nothing, aside from donating money, the familiar ruling-class gesture to retain its legitimacy. Du Pont makes fun of the tongue-tied, unlettered young athlete—but Mark misses the humiliation. Both du Pont and Mark seem equally lacking in affect, but Mark has an authenticity that doesn’t jibe well with du Pont’s maliciousness, his hatred of everyone, including himself.
When the team is formed and a wrestling victory theirs, du Pont and his young acolytes celebrate with champagne in a trophy room constructed by du Pont’s mother, whom her son despises. Du Pont begins to dismantle part of the room to make room for wrestling medals. At this moment, new motivations are manifest. Du Pont, feigning a heart attack, begins to roughhouse with his guys. He wants to be accepted by the male group, but, more importantly, to express his repressed homosexuality. One cannot help but meditate on wrestling as one of the more intimately designed male contact sports, one that covers other impulses. We see sweaty men’s faces in close-up, grimacing as they are “pinned” to the floor; associations with anal sex seem very deliberate. At one point, du Pont tells Mark to meet him in the “portrait gallery.” Paintings of dead du Pont patriarchs stare at the two men groping each other. The word “foxcatcher” takes on fresh meanings, as we understand du Pont as predator; perhaps the word can be a synonym for “chicken hawk.” As Mark is slowly marginalized as a dullard and loser, du Pont wanders over to him as he exercises. He touches the young man’s stomach, but his hand is swatted away. (In reality, du Pont tried to teach wrestlers the “Foxcatcher Five”—gripping an opponent’s testicles—and he was sued by a wrestler for sexual advances.)
The gay underpinning of du Pont’s hobby is sensed by a few, including older brother Dave, who glares at du Pont as he realizes the millionaire knows nothing about wrestling, replacing expertise with irresponsible posturing (at one point du Pont fires a pistol at the gym ceiling, an absurdly tough-guy maneuver to assert authority). Dave is alarmed at he witnesses Mark’s self-destructive activity (overeating, self-mutilation), realizing his beloved brother’s emotional dependence on du Pont, and du Pont’s increased boredom as his whole project crumbles.
Du Pont meets with his dreaded mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). She speaks softly but firmly from her chair, wearing a quiet but severe red suit. She disapproves of her son’s hobby, calling wrestling a “low” sport. She is certainly right if referring to such formations as the World Wrestling Entertainment, termed “soft-core pornography” by Sen. Richard Blumenthal and dismissed entirely by the media as a legitimate sport. But Jean is referring to its class associations, a grubby pastime for the riffraff and college kids. She proceeds to query John on his wishes for his antique train set, which she would like to donate to a museum. She is no Norma Bates, but like her predecessor, Jean wants to infantilize her son and, as in Hitchcock, one knows that the wicked mother (and her son) is the product of a larger world of patriarchal assumptions. (In reality, John du Pont started his wrestling project only after his mother’s death.)
The disintegration of du Pont’s wrestling ambitions can be read as the end of the ruling class’s world, but the film doesn’t quite have that much expansiveness. Still, we have been invited early in the film to read it expansively, and the increased dreariness of this depressing story signals a comprehensive, disastrous ending, if not the apocalypse. Du Pont slaps Mark’s face, calling him an “ungrateful ape” for not treating the wrestling team more harshly. Mark is exiled from Foxcatcher Farm after losing at the 1988 Olympics. Dave, the mature man who doubted the oddball project from the start (“What does Du Pont get out of it?”), is stuck with his family under Du Pont’s watch, although all activity has shut down. During one snowy afternoon, as Dave tries to fix his aging car, Du Pont drives by and shoots him to death, shouting, “You got a problem with me?” The man’s profound insecurities are encapsulated in the horrific scene. The melodramatic chase scene through du Pont catacombs renders du Pont as a wheezing rodent. The real du Pont locked himself in his mansion for a few days, dying in prison in 2010.
One could argue that malevolent behavior during the ruling class’s free time is hardly news. Foxcatcher’s ambition, however, is hardly that of the tabloid exposé. While sticking fairly close to the John du Pont incident, Bennett Miller seems consistently aware of his film’s usefulness in addressing larger problems that go far outside the pathologies of the very rich. We all share the consequences of repression in common, but the film asks us to consider the horrific impact of patriarchal notions of sex, gender, and the male self on those who ultimately wield the guns.
The Foxcatcher Blu-ray highlights, although it may sound contradictory, the overcast gloom of the film’s sets and landscapes, accenting the details of the baroque du Pont household. The only special feature is a making–of documentary that could have gone a bit further, by my lights, into the facts behind the film, perhaps giving us the “complete version” of the promotional video the toady hands to Mark!
Christopher Sharrett is professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University.
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Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3, Summer 2015