It is the based-on-a-true-story story of Mark and Dave Schultz, Olympic champions from the mid-80s, who are fixing to return to the ring in 1988, with a little help from the very wealthy John du Pont. John first lures Mark into his staid privileged world, promising glory and admiration (and a little cocaine), but it’s possible that he only does so to bait Mark’s brother. At some point, Mark and John’s curious relationship goes sour, and Mark feels betrayed by his actual brother as well as the father-like figure of John du Pont. (John seems to be playing friend, brother, father, and mentor roles simultaneously… and possibly another role as well? It’s hard to ignore the film’s total lack of sexuality.)
Dave and Mark are already Olympic gold medal winners. John du Pont is heir to one of the great “old money” fortunes in America. They’ve already achieved the dream other Americans long for. Still, they want more. Mark (Channing Tatum) claims he wants to be the best wrestler in the world — an itch which you’d think an Olympic gold medal might have scratched already — and John (Steve Carell) wants to soak up that glory through osmosis, by sponsoring Mark and his brother as wrestlers. Though both brothers are formidable, older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) has accumulated the majority of the fame, at least in Mark’s eyes. So Mark wants to be even better. He wants more championship titles, more gold medals — just as the du Ponts want more pointless trophies to put in their pointless trophy room. In Bennett Miller’s America, too much is never enough.But what’s the point? Who really cares who funded a gold medalist? Does that fairy dust ever really rub off on the sponsor? And at a certain point, after you’ve already won a gold medal, isn’t enough enough? Mark wants to prove that he’s his own man, to crawl out from under his brother’s shadow — but the problem is that he’s trying to do it by wrestling, the very thing Dave is famous for. A smarter guy would have picked another sport, or another platform entirely. Mark’s wrestling skills will eventually fade, one way or another, and what then? You can’t move out of your brother’s shadow if you’re following his every motion.
As for John du Pont? We’re left to guess somewhat at the life he led before Mark Schultz met him, but it’s easy to see that John feels emasculated by his cold, controlling mother (Vanessa Redgrave). We can guess that he didn’t get a lot of opportunities to roughhouse with other boys as a youth, which might be why wrestling in particular appeals to him. The du Pont family has strength in their bank accounts, but John is a tiny, bird-like man (with a bird-like beak for a nose, and a probably-not-coincidental obsession with ornithology). He’s not a strong man in any sense of the word, which might be what attracts him toward a hulk of a man like Mark Schultz. He’s a leech.
Foxcatcher doesn’t give us much insight into any of these characters’ interior lives, but the easiest to understand, by far, is Dave. Dave is a simple family man and that’s what he cares about — wrestling is something he’s good at, something he can make money doing, but it’s all about his family. John has only his chilly mother, not far from death, and a mountain of money awaiting him. Mark has even less — no friends to speak of, no love interest, and no money until John enters the picture. These men chase after being the best because without such a pursuit, they are nothing at all. Foxcatcher unfolds in a sad, bleak little universe where getting better only means getting progressively worse.Wrestling and collecting weapons are John’s hobbies, his way of playing at being a tough guy, but it is an actual killing that ultimately undoes the bond between these three men. America loves violence. It was founded on it (as John reminds us, showing off his Revolutionary War-era home). Men like to watch other men wrestle each other. They like tanks and guns. They especially like tanks with guns attached to them. Foxcatcher may not connect all the dots on how America’s obsession with military and violent sports lines up with the murder that unfolds in this story, but it does give us the dots, and says: make of these what you will. It has an almost ambivalent attitude toward its thematic content, so you can easily leave the theater asking questions like, “Why?” and “So what?”
Miller quite obviously has the American dream on his mind, perhaps even more than the actual facts about these three real-life men. The real story is fascinating, but you’ll find only stray slivers of it here. What we do learn is that John is obsessed with military weapons, which he collects like the trophies his mother has devoted an entire room in the estate to. John has never fought in a war, but he’s content to acquire the accoutrement, the same way he’s content to collect wrestling medals he has only bankrolled, while other “real” men put the physical sweat into earning them. Merely owning symbols of powerful and masculininty makes John du Pont feel like a man.
For a while.
Until it doesn’t.
John du Pont is an overgrown boy, not a man, and when a spoiled child doesn’t get his way? Watch out.
Channing Tatum is solid as Mark, but Mark isn’t a terribly deep or interesting individual, and we have to wonder why this twentysomething is hanging out with a much older skeezy rich dude all the time. Sure, du Pont’s financial support is a factor, but we rarely see Mark socializing with anybody else, and never once does he display any interest in women or sex of any kind. And the dude looks like Channing Tatum. Yes, Channing Tatum with cauliflower ear, but still Channing Tatum. The homosexual undercurrent is never explicitly suggested by this film, but it’s impossible not to wonder about. (Discuss.) Mark Schultz’s book about these events probably gives us more insight into what’s going on here, but in terms of this film, it’s hard to say for sure.
Steve Carell is noticeably unshowy, despite that fake schnoz, underplaying his character to such a degree that the character is frequently lifeless and ultimately soulless. Mark Ruffalo rounds out the cast as Dave, exactly the sort of guy you’d expect to shrug off a gold medal. The kind of guy who has to write “Pick Up Kids” in black marker on his hands just to remember this daily errand. The kind of guy who doesn’t get that the Very Rich need to be treated like they’re Very Special. He’s the film’s simplest character, but Ruffalo plays him expertly, the only character here we really get to know.
This trio will undoubtedly all be a part of the awards conversation, though Carell has the best chance at a nomination (and even a win) — if audiences don’t find him too understated and removed to warm up to. (Then again, the Academy loves a big, fake nose — just ask Nicole Kidman.)
Bennett Miller’s original cut of the film was more than four hours long, which might have been brilliant or excruciating. At two hours and fifteen minutes, it feels too long. Foxcatcher begins slowly, in Miller’s well-composed but unhurried shots. It’s like a fly on the wall who has ceased buzzing. It feels like all the juiciest interactions have been cut out of the film, leaving competent but not utterly compelling scenes.
Foxcatcher is interesting almost in spite of itself. It may only be an interesting film because America is an interesting place. Bring your own magnifying glass to examine the subtext, because Bennett Miller doesn’t do it for us. Steve Carell’s John du Pont is a sad, worthless, empty black hole of a person, and Carell plays him that way. We want nothing to do with him. Then again, according to this film, neither did anyone else who got to know him. It’s hard to tell if we’re meant to think that extreme privilege made him this way, or if it’s just where this human cipher happened to land in the cosmic lottery — but either way, just looking at him is depressing.
Foxcatcher isn’t such a troubling movie because we’re invested in what happens in the characters, or because what happens is much darker than we’d see in any other movie, but because it’s so hopeless. There’s nothing we especially want for any of these characters, except maybe that they all go very far away from each other and never speak again.