erik lundegaard

Foxcatcher
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Foxcatcher (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a great indictment of the American class system. It’s about the need we breed into the poor and dislocated, and how that need—that fury—can sometimes lead to excellence, and how that excellence can be bought by the idle rich. It’s a movie about the sadness of people with too few options, and the sadness of people with too many. It’s about these words, “No, Mark, stay,” which implies a dog you can control, and “No, John! Stop, John!” which implies a dog you can’t.

The dog you can’t control is the very rich, who are very different from you and me.

Written byE. Max Frye
Dan Futterman
Directed byBennett Miller
StarringChanning Tatum
Steve Carell
Mark Ruffalo
Sienna Miller

The pace of the film is slow and measured but with an angry intensity always ready to uncoil itself. It’s a movie that blasts you with quiet, and then—per George Stevens’ gunfire in “Shane”—blasts you with the final, sad, incomprehensible act. It ends with a lusty crowd chanting “USA! USA!,” which Miller cuts off mid-chant like a rebuke.

Buying friends and enemies

First off: Holy shit, Channing Tatum, where did that come from? The first third of the movie is his brooding intensity, his seething anger—not to mention his athleticism. He’s a big man who moves with sudden speed. He grabs, spins, you’re down. There’s beauty in it.

It’s March 1987. Mark Schultz is a freestyle wrestler who won gold at the 1984 Olympics but lives by himself in a dingy, second-floor walk-up. He gives stuttering talks to uncomprehending elementary school kids in half-filled auditoriums, then trains for the ’87 world championships and the ’88 Olympics with his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), at Wexler University.

They’re opposites. Mark understands little and forgives less, while Dave understands much and forgives more. Mark is bottled-up and resentful, Dave is outgoing and gentle. During their training session, Mark headbutts Dave in the nose, drawing blood. It seems intentional, his resentment getting the better of him; but Dave simply steps back, wipes the blood off, continues. No looks, no accusations. Dave has a wife and two kids, and he’s good with them; Mark is alone with his thoughts and ramen noodles.

Then the deus ex machina of Mark’s life arrives—a phone call from John Eleuthere Du Pont—and he’s spirited away, by helicopter, to the vast Du Pont estate, called Foxcatcher, outside Philadelphia. There, the heir to the Du Pont chemical fortune (Steve Carell) invites him to stay: to train for the Olympics as part of Team Foxcatcher. The Soviets have state-sponsored training, so why not, in the U.S., idle-rich-sponsored training?

Here, Mark’s eyes light up for the first time in the movie. He sees the wealth, the purpose, the call to patriotism, but he doesn’t see what we see: Du Pont’s slow-motion creepiness. With head slightly raised, Du Pont, who wants to be called “Eagle” or “Double Eagle,” speaks with interminable pauses, as if he’s still learning the language; or as if he’s used to people waiting on him. There’s a trophy room filled mostly with the medals and ribbons of his mother’s prize horses. Mark is warned to steer clear of Mrs. Du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), and we expect her to be batty, or mean; but beyond the isolation of her class, and her view that wrestling is a “low sport,” she doesn’t seem too bad.

Does John go for the “low sport” to spite her? Because it’s macho? Homoerotic? All of the above? Is he interested in another trophy for the room? Is Mark that trophy? The questions mount and Miller doesn’t quite give us answers. We get why Du Pont comes between Dave and Mark—he wants greater control of, and greater credit for, the Olympic champion—but why offer Mark cocaine? Because he doesn’t understand what it takes to succeed? And why does Mark give up training? Why dye his hair blonde? Are he and John lovers? We also get why Du Pont finally brings in Dave to shape up Team Foxcatcher—they really need a trainer—but why does Dave accept? He was offered the gig before and turned it down.

Du Pont: How much does he want?
Mark: You can’t buy Dave.
Du Pont [long pause]: Huh.

There’s a moment in the movie when we actually feel for Du Pont. It’s when he tells Mark that he only had one friend growing up—the chauffer’s son—but later found out that his mother paid the boy to be his friend. And here Mark is unintentionally saying the same thing: You bought me, but you can’t buy Dave. But then Du Pont does buy Dave. Was the money better this time? Were the accommodations for his family? Was Dave worried about his brother? His country? USA, USA?

We all become our parents. As a child, Du Pont’s mother bought friends for him, and as an adult he does the same for himself. But he knows enough to not trust what he’s bought.

The relationship between John and Mark is awful and symbiotic. John needs to prove to his mother that he has value, and Mark needs to prove that he has value without his brother. Neither man succeeds. Mrs. Du Pont seems to see through her son’s charade—there’s a painful scene where, with his mother watching, he shows champion wrestlers basic moves—and Mark not only doesn’t succeed without Dave, he falls on his face. He loses his first match in the ’88 Olympic trials, and only makes the team because Dave nurtures him back to health. After that, Mark’s resentment shifts—from Dave, whom he felt overshadowed his success, to Du Pont, who undid it. He winds up leaving Foxcatcher; Dave stays.

We live here

It would be interesting to hear Bennett Miller talk about why he made the decisions he made in condensing the “Foxcatcher” story. In real life, Dave and Mark were never at Foxcatcher at the same time. In real life, more than seven years passed between Mark leaving and Du Pont killing Dave Schultz in cold blood, but Miller makes it seem a couple of months. Reports also indicate that Du Pont began to act crazier in the months preceding the shooting. In the movie, he starts out odd and doesn’t change much.

Indeed, for all of the film’s opaqueness, are the characters themselves too obvious? One-dimensional? Du Pont begins and ends odd, Mark begins and ends with an angry glower, Dave is thoughtful throughout. I got such a feeling of warmth around Dave. I don’t know how Ruffalo conveys that, but he does. Carell’s Du Pont? Icky. Even the gummy teeth was apparently real.

Was Miller warned away from Du Pont’s apparent homosexuality? Did he find it inconclusive? Irrelevant? I suppose I would’ve liked less ambiguity in terms of motivation and more ambiguity within the characters themselves.

Even so, what an indictment of our class system. Near the end, the Schultzes return from the’88 Games—which Mark apparently threw so Du Pont wouldn’t get credit—and they’re confronted at the gate by a suspicious security team, who ask them to state their business. “We ... live here?” Dave says. But he’s no longer sure. Even if it wasn’t an intentional message, a message was still sent. We are allowed this small space at the sufferance of our betters. We ... live here.

—December 28, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard

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