Director: Bennett Miller
Screenplay: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
Cinematography: Greig Fraser; Editing: Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy & Conor O’Neill
Production Design: Jess Gonchor; Set Decoration: Kathy Lucas; Costumes: Kasia Walicka-Maimone; Score: Rob Simonsen
Stars: Steve Carell (John E. du Pont), Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz), Mark Ruffalo (Dave Schultz), Vanessa Redgrave (Jean du Pont), Sienna Miller (Nancy Schultz), Anthony Michael Hall (Jack), Guy Boyd (Henry Beck), Brett Rice (Fred Cole)
Maybe I’ve watched one too many paranormal programs but I find it nearly impossible to separate in my mind the horrors said to haunt Fox Hollow Farm from what lies in store for the unsuspecting young men lured to Foxcatcher Farms, the du Pont family estate in director Bennett Miller’s new movie. Both true life stories seem subliminally intended to point up near identical morals regarding the fate that invariably befalls the sinful who are tempted into a life of drugs and sexual promiscuity.
At least that seems to be what Foxcatcher is getting at, since it never goes so far as to make any open accusations which could provide substantial grounds for slander. Though Mark Schultz has taken to Twitter to vehemently deny the allegation, everything in the film discretely infers that something sexually unsavory transpired between John du Pont (Steve Carell) and the former gold medalist (Channing Tatum) he was grooming for wrestling glory at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, instigating the murder of Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), Mark’s brother and du Pont’s coach.
Foxcatcher opens on historical footage of the sort of fox hunt the farm was christened for, contrasting this sport of kings with the crude, brutish, flesh on flesh sport of professional wrestling that the carefully manicured du Pont lawns now play host to. Instead of riding to hounds like his well-bred forefathers, the dynasty’s heir apparent has converted the grounds into an exercise yard for this low brow game of grappling, which seems just a step up from bar room brawling to the horrified mind of his mother. She doesn’t want her son dragging the du Pont name through the mud by making a public spectacle of himself in such undignified fashion. As the aging family matriarch, the legendary Vanessa Redgrave adds extra weight and dimension to the film’s view of class prerogative. We can instantly understand why the other actors in the cast would feel so unworthy and inferior in her august presence as well as why her son has been made to feel like an inconsequential little worm all his life. As if to confirm her assessment, his exercising men are found crawling on their bellies at the very instance she honors them with her presence. To John, his chosen passion isn’t too far removed from his mother’s own hobby of raising thoroughbred horses for competition. He may be trying to turn his training camp at Foxcatcher Farms into the official Olympic site for USA wrestling, but the basic du Pont mentality hasn’t been modified much down through the ages. He’s simply traded up their traditional horsemanship for a different stable of snorting studs to be trotted out to pasture for their daily steeplechase. He even clears the best in show ribbons and racing prizes from the du Pont trophy case to make room for his wrestling awards, drawing a more direct analogy with the estate’s equestrienne past. He considers these little gold medals the real foxes worth catching, swooping down on them like a vulture. Claiming that horses are stupid (“All they do is eat and sh*t.”), du Pont is not so far removed from that hunter of humans in The Most Dangerous Game, finding the challenge of breaking and training a higher order of life much more exhilarating. With such connections being drawn between wrestling and foxhunting, our minds are panicked by the appearance of a gun, wondering whether those who don’t make the cut on du Pont’s elite team are to suffer the same fate as lame horses who need to be put down. But that’s one metaphor this movie thankfully passes on.
Abject demonstration of the law of diminishing returns, John has reduced the proud du Pont legacy to judges of a different sort of horseflesh. And the fact that he still regards the men he coaches as being little better than animals becomes clear when his crack security team, headed by Anthony Michael Hall, fences off the acceptable parameters of Mark’s stall, limiting where he’s permitted to canter around the grounds and emphasizing his subordinate place in the grand scheme of things. The big house is off limits for instance, unless the du Pont family deigns to invite him to slap on the feed bag. Mark is made to feel like a mule among such high tone pedigree and, pathetically grateful for the attention, responds obediently when ordered to ‘stay’ by du Pont as if securing his bridle. Though he’d like to horse around like one of the boys himself, the wrestlers are only slightly elevated beasts of burden to this elitist who has been conditioned from birth to carry the same class prejudices as his mother, bitch slapping Mark for taking advantage of the generous sugar cubes he’s been accorded and characterizing him as an ungrateful ape.
Critics have been largely dismissive of Channing Tatum’s talents in the past, and for good reason, but one must give credit where it’s due. He deserves to be commended for actually trying to act here, even if he’s acting as if he’d been dropped on his head most of the time. Having boxed in Fighting, wrestling seems a logical enough progression, and he appears to have been inspired by playing a real person who he could study and pattern himself after (Mark Schultz has a cameo at the official weigh-in ceremony). Appreciative of such expert casting, Tatum makes a valiant effort to give a genuine performance, a legitimate character turn rather than his usual galumphing walk through, which might have actually sufficed in this instance. Doing something Sling Bladeish with his chin, he juts it out at a pronounced angle to give himself the vaguely simian appearance of a lowland gorilla. The lockjaw comes and goes in the later scenes but when du Pont calls him a big ape the phrase seems to fit.
Still struggling to eke out a living at wrestling despite pushing an age when most athletes are considering retirement, he hunches his shoulders forward like a prematurely old man, squaring his body to give himself the stiff, shuffling walk of a muscle-bound hulk. Taciturn, bruised and uncommunicative, sitting on the edge of his bed staring off into nothing, he’s a frustrated Frankenstein monster who can only be controlled and talked down by his more grounded older brother. Tatum’s always shrewdly cast as the insecure underdog in his films, the way Sly Stallone used to be in the ’70s, so it’s impossible not to sympathize with him. Talking in front of a group of kids at the beginning, and later nervously rattling off a speech he’s memorized before a convention of hundreds, his breathless, halting delivery intentionally emphasizes his untrained acting technique, having never been required to master the art of dialogue or the secrets of holding an audience. Rather than jarring with the film however, as this usually does, it has been logically incorporated into his character.
Building on an earlier scene where his self-loathing Schultz was shown abusing himself, Tatum has a genuinely remarkable breakdown in progressive stages after being humiliated in the ring before both his surrogate ‘fathers.’ Slowly building up a head of steam like a corralled bull, he tears through his hotel room before turning the anger inward, self-destructively binge eating to sabotage himself so he won’t be eligible for his weight division and disqualified from competition. He wants to be punished, to feel the burn, and hurting himself physically in the only way he knows how to process his emotions. This astonishing little sequence is like nothing the actor has ever attempted before, significant evidence of untapped talent, and director Bennett Miller is careful not to let him embarrass himself at this stage by stretching beyond his capacity. Miller who, as the ads proclaim, drew Academy Award-recognized performances from his actors in Capote and Moneyball, may be the most sensitive director Tatum has ever worked with; he’s thoroughly attuned to the actor’s special needs. Draped in form flattering wrestling singlets as he spars with tackle dummies, his physicality is again overemphasized, but at least here it’s to some purpose and makes sense in the context. Tatum is still too guarded about giving over his emotions to the camera, but even that trait seems core to his character. And it works, up to the point where he’s required to fill in the missing pieces the script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman doesn’t, so that we can understand precisely why Mark reacts the way he does to his brother’s acceptance of du Pont’s standing employment offer.
Miller’s uncanny gift for making over actors extends to Steve Carell here as well. Like Tatum, he seems to have looked to his role as a form of penance, intended to redeem all the lowbrow comedies he’s subjected us to in the past. And in the limited terms of image altering performances, his work is even more remarkable. He recedes so completely into character there’s absolutely no trace of the actor left behind and I’m not sure if that’s brilliant or disturbing. This is one of those instances where the makeup job is absolutely flawless, so convincing we don’t even recognize the person beneath the greasepaint, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. It may be the skin drying powder giving his flesh the consistency of old parchment, the extra weight, the false teeth which only become obvious once, when he tips his head back in a victory whoop and the light hits his denture plate just so. Or maybe it’s the extended schnoz. With that pointy beak this self-professed ornithologist has been made to look like a bird of prey himself. He could crack open seeds with that thing so it’s not surprising he answers to the nickname ‘golden eagle.’ However, the script never allows Carell to open the character up to the point where we can see past the carefully cultivated veneer of reserve. The scene where he frees all his mother’s prized stallions from their stable for instance, seems misplaced; it might have strayed in from Equus.
Tamped down all his life by the expectations placed upon him by the du Pont name, Carell is playing a character so emotionally remote he’s had to put a damper on his naturally vibrant personality, replacing it with the eerily still air of an undertaker. So his comic gifts start stealing to the surface in odd ways, unconsciously encouraging audiences to laugh at the awkward way his John runs laps, or at his oddball double takes where every halting syllable that escapes him seems a few beats off, as if he were still uncertain of himself despite the superior air he affects. Carell’s portrait of this eccentric millionaire who would like to play in the mud in a way his refined parents never let him as a child, becomes a mordantly deadpan turn. He’s never gone this pitch black before so the role brings out a totally different facet of his talent. He even manages a straight face when satirically stating the obvious fact that Mark has some psychological issues they need to work out.
That du Pont is out of synch with the world around him is made evident in one of the movie’s many foreshadowing scenes meant to emphasize his fascination with firepower. As he stands in the perfectly synchronized line of cops at a rifle range, he’s the only one facing away from the camera with his back to us, odd man out. His desire to set himself apart from the du Pont legacy by carving an individual niche for himself as a national hero, benefactor of the Olympic pro-wrestling team, has placed him not just at odds with his disapproving family but the world in general. Though Dave can’t understand what du Pont is getting out of such philanthropic patronage we can see that he’s living out his childish fantasies. He’s a somnambulant sleepwalker subsisting in a dream world of his own creation where he’s the best wrestler on the team, his own most valued player. Du Pont no longer need care about giving away the toy train set he’s always felt sentimentally attached to now that he gets to let his inner child out to play in the ring.
While he claims to be a leader of men, he behaves like a spoiled brat whenever he doesn’t get his way, and it seems incredulous that he should choose to remain blissfully ignorant that everyone is letting him win just to keep him from throwing a hissy fit. He’s humored and endured rather than liked or respected, willfully blinding himself to the fact that people only put up with his boorish behavior because of his money, much as his parents paid off his only friend growing up. Returning to wrestling in the over fifty category, his grappling matches with other grandpas are slotted right next to the kiddie contests and valued about as highly. Those who can’t do teach, and in du Pont’s case he can’t even do that effectively. Still, his team pretends to find value in his coaching advice for fear of insulting their powerful patron and losing financial backing.
The two leads seem ensconced in a battle for title of career best performance, generating a simmering tension between them that keeps us compelled. Practically pawing the earth in their eagerness to impress with their serious acting chops, it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off their private Kentucky Derby, even when we’re not given the slightest inkling what’s going on in their characters’ minds. A more focused pair of performances would surely have illuminated what’s motivating them to do half the things they do. Perhaps because he isn’t chomping so hard at the bit to show us any newfound range, the ease of Mark Ruffalo’s invisible acting comes off smoothest, even if it is far less fun and colorful than his co-stars. His character is refreshingly free of the others’ dysfunctional psychodrama and as such is meant to anchor the movie, the way Catherine Keener did in Capote. His Dave serves as a stabilizing influence in his brother’s life, his warmth, heart and expansive emotional generosity serving as perfect counter to du Pont’s withered old emotional skinflint.
Foxcatcher starts off being about the tortured interdependence between mentor and protégée and ends as memorial to the third wheel that comes between them. In silhouette, from behind, on the way to his interview taping, Ruffalo’s Dave walks so similarly to Mark the professed familial resemblance is unmistakable. When Mark succeeds at the Olympics, du Pont is so embittered not to have been able to share in his success now that he’s shut out of Mark’s life, he ends up trying to keep his new coach in the shadows by taking personal credit for the men Dave’s training. He even puts together a self-aggrandizing video commemoration intended to place him on par with that illustrious du Pont documentary Mark was forced to suffer through upon arrival. Trying to steal all the glory and downplay Dave’s contribution as coach, du Pont actually shunts him into the very position he’d persuaded Mark that his brother had been placing him in earlier. Dave can’t quite put into words what du Pont’s paid interviewer is looking for when asked to describe his benefactor’s contributions on camera, leaving Dave to himself be coached into falsely claiming that du Pont is as much his mentor as Mark’s.
One could almost interpret the tense dramatic configuration between the three men as a subliminal restructuring of that between actor, director and producer, with star Mark under the Svengali sway of director Dave, coaching him through the motions to give a winning performance, while du Pont’s resentful money man attempts to take credit for the ultimate success of an enterprise to which he contributed nothing besides funding. As he comes to realize to his chagrin, the best du Pont can hope for is to bask in the glory of accomplishments achieved through the labor of others, which never tastes as sweet. However the script fails to emphasize the depths of his nasty competitiveness with ‘assistant’ coach Dave who he chooses to bring on board of his own free will, a developing power struggle between them over Mark’s allegiances, or even any real sense of enmity between the two, so the extreme ending seems out of left field despite all the carefully laid preparations for it.
The movie never makes clear why Mark, who subsists in the spotlight on the mat, is supposed to be living in the shadow of big brother Dave. They may have both won Olympic gold medals but as coach, Dave, now settled and relatively secure, has relegated himself to the sidelines, away from the public eye, which one would think should have cooled any sibling rivalry. Despite the extra padding Ruffalo added for the part, he would still seem outside of his brother’s same weight class so we’re not even sure what they’re supposed to be competing over. Still, the dysfunctional dynamics of their brotherly bond, in which Mark has always been made to come off second best, is emphasized from the first scene, where the lesser Schultz proves a poor last minute replacement as guest speaker at the elementary school engagement Dave had booked. He’s so nondescript that even the secretary cutting his check mistakes this Olympic gold medalist for his older brother. When the two spar for practice, it’s clear that it feels more natural for them to combatively lock arms on the mat rather than wrapping them around one another in a more affectionate embrace.
Better adjusted socially, Dave can express his love for his brother verbally, but Mark articulates all his emotions physically, his unspoken hostilities and resentment bubbling up Brokeback fashion as he unwittingly bloodies his brother’s nose during practice. He resents that it’s Dave, the brains for both of them, who the Wrestling Commission confers with, as if his baby bro had become punchy after his last bout and weren’t competent to make his own decisions. This is why Mark finds it so flattering that the powerful John du Pont courts him rather than his brother, inducing him to break away from Dave for the first time by signing a more advantageous contract, the only autonomous move he’s ever made without his overprotective brother taking the lead. When he approaches the du Pont mansion anticipating his new life the shot ripples as if it had been taken underwater to indicate Mark’s entire world has been turned inside out. Like the du Pont scion, who’d like to emerge out from under the specter of his mother’s thoroughbreds, Mark wants to distance himself from Dave in order to become his own person, a fact which helps bond him to du Pont emotionally.
The way Mark refers to them in the plural when du Pont enlists him to secure his brother’s services, “Mr. du Pont and I would love to have you,” and sings his benefactor’s praises as the most generous man in America, tells us in what high regard he holds their affiliation. The first time we see Mark jaunty and energized is when du Pont shows him the lavish gym facilities he’s constructed for him at Foxcatcher, an undreamed of perk, his own private playground. Just this side of obsequious, Mark is so eager to please his new mentor he promises “I’ll give you everything I have Mr. du Pont,” and sincerely means what he’s saying, ignorant of just how much he’s going to be asked to give. John procures athletes to stock his Olympic team the same way a collector acquires precious stones and this depiction of his ‘buying’ players is only a slightly exaggerated version of how sportsmen are typically recruited by owners and assigned a price tag to indicate their net worth, more or less the same theme Miller previously explored in Moneyball. Mark, his gym’s crowning glory, fails to realize that du Pont was looking to catch two prize foxes for the price of one, the invitation he was so flattered to have received actually a package deal.
Du Pont will settle for nothing less than the services of both brothers though Mark assures him that “You can’t buy Dave,” acknowledging that he in fact sees himself as having been bought. Miffed when Dave continually turns him down, du Pont spitefully drives a wedge between the brothers under the pretext of boosting insecure Mark’s ego and giving him a greater sense of confidence than he’d ever had before. Telling him that Dave would never have let him be everything he could for fear of being overshadowed, he convinces Mark that everything he’d ever accomplished had unfairly been credited to his brother. Du Pont’s conditioning of his wrestlers, not just in body but in mind, has a vaguely cultish ring to it, indoctrinating them as he does Mark, to look to him as brother, father, mentor, leader. It causes his own physically fit fillies to shy away from him the same way his mother’s horses do. But then the movie never gets a good handle on explaining du Pont’s aspiration to groom these young athletes, so it just comes across as a prurient desire to develop his own stable of available studs for private riding pleasure, breaking his wild stallions of their free will before saddling up. There are degrees of flesh merchants and du Pont is made to seem a procurer, with the director shooting him standing on the sidelines like some creepy old perv, making the men uncomfortable by ogling their fit, toned bodies writhing around on the mats.
We assume the relationship between the three men will be shaped like an oedipal triangle with the two fatherless Schultz boys competing for the favor of the big du Pont daddy, a Cain and Abel parable, but this reasoning proves lopsided. Instead, Foxcatcher becomes a showdown between good and evil as degenerate du Pont, in whom Mark publicly avers to have found the father he’s spent his life looking for, and upstanding family man Dave, who Mark claims raised him during their itinerant, hardscrabble childhoods, compete to claim Mark’s soul. They become his vying father figures, good and bad angels on each shoulder, jockeying for a prized place as coach in his corner. Exploiting all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities he had initially gathered from Mark during what seemed like a psychological assessment, du Pont tries taking the place of his brother as coach and confidante in order to assume credit for Mark’s successes in the ring, the same way he takes over coaching duties whenever his mother is around in a fruitless attempt to impress her. In what seems to amount to a slow seduction, the camera lingers over du Pont’s practice session with Mark as if it were a lover’s clinch, but their fully clothed dry humping seems far less suggestive than any number of half-naked man on man wrestling matches we’ve already been subjected to.
Ever since he caught on to what was being implied, the real Mark Schultz has been understandably irate over the casual liberties Foxcatcher took with his sexual orientation. Movies have been erroneously presenting gay historical figures as straight for so long it’s oddly amusing to see the shoe on the other foot, especially when it belongs to a personage still living. How in the world does a poor guy live something like this down, much less one who’d already been publicly traumatized once in his lifetime by circumstances beyond his control? To be fair, the movie never gets too cozy with the men’s suspect liaison, skittishly circling the issue with blushing aversion, much as Mark refuses to answer his brother’s question concerning what exactly is going on between them, forcing us to draw our own conclusions. But what else could wrestling lead to with such close body contact and all those intertwined limbs? One can certainly see why du Pont’s mother is disturbed by the spectacle when she visits the gym.
Anticipating the inevitable, our eyes are glued to the screen, reading more than need be into such incidents as Mark throwing out his mattress before moving into the du Pont mansion, and his benefactor complimenting the comfy bed in the guest chalet where he’s to be housed. Because we’re never made to understand if these guys who appear to have no relationship with women are meant to be gay or straight, or something in between, we can’t know how seriously to take Miller’s unmistakable inference of an affair. When they embrace publicly it can be dismissed as the typical demonstrativeness that usually attends sports victory and when Mark admits that he feels du Pont’s love for him, the admission is qualified by the codicil ‘as an athlete’ and the fact that he looks on du Pont as a surrogate father.
The clear implication that Mark has been had sexually speaking is indicated by a quick glimpse of the phallic Washington Monument followed by his fey new look, complete with frosted highlights. Despite his earlier objection to drinking while in training, we’re meant to see how far afield of his scruples he’s strayed by all the empty beer bottles scattered about. Du Pont seems obsessive about his player’s abstinence as well, but then inexplicably presses cocaine on his star athlete as if it were steroids, with an amusing “It’s just cocaine, it’s not going to kill you.” The degree of Mark’s emotional complicity in this relationship depicted as degrading to him is skewed by the suggestion that he was seduced by the drugs, money, fame, the way other guys swear they were drunk when it happened. There’s no way to tell how out of character it’s meant to be to find Mark swinging for the other team, and when he shaves his head, it could easily be because he’s afraid of his brother seeing how fruity he looks as much as indication that he’s rooting out all physical traces of his attachment to du Pont, washing the man out of his hair.
The movie certainly depicts the fatherless, emotionally vulnerable Mark as being receptive to the attentions and blandishments of a powerful older man, but is indecisive whether to go so far as to suggest sex was the means by which he expressed his gratitude for everything du Pont had done for him. If things ever got that far, with du Pont’s financial backing battering down his resistance Schultz likely wouldn’t have thought it economically advantageous to say no. Money is mightier than the sword and the movie’s version of gay for pay Mark, who now cashes $10,000 checks rather than skimping by on $20, allows his patron to pin him rather than fighting back, meaning self-professed great man du Pont was still buying his companionship, same as his parents bought friends for him in his youth. A myriad of possibilities present themselves because, though the entire film pivots on this speculative turn of events we never manage to get a psychological grip on what (or who) exactly goes down. Having been turned out in some way, Mark is suddenly behaving more like a kept man than a most valued player, and du Pont’s treatment of him while “This Land is Your Land” plays on the soundtrack to mock the widening gap between the haves and have nots, recalls the exploitative homosexual relationship Fassbinder depicted in Fox and His Friends.
Miller himself dealt with a similar, homoerotic liaison in Capote, only there it was an erudite intellectual, in a misguided stab at literary greatness, who used another strangely sidestepped seduction to manipulate a lumpenproletariat to his own ends. Here, du Pont exploits his ill-bred wrestler in similar fashion, but despite his shamelessly egotistical bid to become America’s next national hero, garners only scorn and notoriety instead. Abetted by cinematographer Greig Fraser, the director has adopted a placidly icy tone for Foxcatcher that allows him to maintain the same safely objective distance from his protagonists as he did in Capote. The entire film seems overcast with an ominous foreboding of what’s to come. After building up Mark’s confidence with that impressive anti-Dave speech intended to repair his fragile ego, du Pont cruelly chooses to crush it again by calling in his brother to put the wrestling team back on track after Mark’s coaching fails to meet his exacting standards. Placing the welfare of his wrestlers before the personal feelings of the first real friend of his life, re-erecting the class barriers standing between them, du Pont is stabbing himself in the back as much as he is Mark. He’s so socially tone-deaf he even compliments Dave’s training technique in front of him, as if trying to rub salt in the wound by stoking the jealousy he helped fester.
Having been turned against his brother, we know why Mark wants to lock Dave out of his life, closing the iron door in his face and spitefully exercising alone while Dave gives the other wrestlers pointers, and reflexively bats du Pont’s hand away as if he were trying to cop a feel right out in the open. Uncertain whether he can trust either Dave or du Pont, Mark is left with no one in his corner. Obstinately ignoring the advice of both father figures, he’s a formless lump of clay as a wrestler, incapable of winning his matches without the proper guidance. We’ve been set up to expect that the tension will arise between the reunited brothers du Pont had driven a wedge between, but blood proves thicker than water, Mark choosing Dave’s pure, platonic love over du Pont’s destructive, exploitative hold on him. But the way this movie has been dramatically slanted it’s made to seem as though he were choosing to rejoin the clean living, straight world by renouncing the corrupting destructiveness of a homosexual lifestyle. When he sacrilegiously stops by on their day of rest, du Pont is instinctively spurned by Dave’s wife and children who seem to sense he’s a threat to the very family values he publicly avers.
Back under his brother’s care, Mark begins behaving as immaturely as du Pont, refusing to speak to him, and the fallout plays like proceedings for divorce court, with Dave ensuring that his client receives alimony to pay for his continued upkeep and support after their professional arrangement is dissolved. Unable to stand seeing his prized fox get away, one can’t help thinking it’s Mark that du Pont should want dead, riding him down like one of his ancestors’ hunting parties. But Frye and Futterman’s script allows too much of the dramatic logic to lapse. We don’t understand why Dave has suddenly chosen to accept du Pont’s standing offer at the very instant his brother elects to vacate the premises for instance, or if this means that he too has been bought, despite Mark’s assertion that he couldn’t be. Someone in this sad old world needs to retain their wherewithal, affording us a hero worth looking up to, as du Pont argues.
Nor is there any follow through as to what Mark might be feeling following the tragic turn of events at the end. We can’t even be quite certain that we’ve fully grasped why du Pont, who spurned Mark to bring Dave in to coach, then turns on him as if he had purposely come between the two. Former Olympian Mark seems to have sunk to the lowest rung of his professional ladder, taking dives in kickboxing cage matches like the one he had once scoffed at with his teammates. Selling himself like meat on the mat as an offering to the bloodthirsty crowds baying for the gold medalist’s blood while chanting “USA…USA!” certainly doesn’t seem preferable to the way he sold himself earlier to du Pont. He’s still trying to punish himself, this time over guilt for leading his brother into the jaws of death. The post script tells us the real Mark Schultz now conducts wrestling clinics in Oregon, having excelled in the training profession du Pont once disparaged him at. So the movie appears to be punishing him too by ending on this low note rather than lingering over the irony that Mark ended up becoming just the type of successful coach du Pont had so connived and conspired to convince the world he was.
The connections we keep expecting Foxcatcher’s script to make just aren’t there. The initial scenes depict former Olympian Mark as if he were the abject picture of a disgruntled war vet, forgotten by his government and incapable of readjusting to civilian life. He speaks reverently of this nation before a group of grade schoolers and, taken under the wing of du Pont’s self-professed American eagle, agrees that he’d like to see his country soar again. The way du Pont coordinates his team’s wrestling singlets against a red, white and blue scheme and lectures them about being responsible American citizens, heroes worth looking up to, makes him sound as if he were addressing boy scouts or angling for a Wheaties box cover. When he lectures Mark on the patriots who died on these shores during the Revolutionary War, it reminds us of the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware we had seen in Mark’s apartment earlier, aligning their visions. As he confides to his brother, du Pont verbalizes everything that’s in inarticulate Mark’s head, surprising us that he ever entertained such deep thoughts. They both feel the country has lost its moral compass because it has no untarnished idols to look up to. Du Pont mentions the way the Soviets laud their athletes, feting and fawning over them as a matter of national pride, and decries the U.S. for failing to similarly honor former champions like Mark. There are indications that he’d like to oversee his men’s regimen as strictly as the Soviets did their national teams as well, imprisoning them on his training compound to be relentlessly drilled into perfectly honed, competitive tools.
Fraser’s fetishistic camera lingers on the stars and stripes flapping proudly over the heartland and, as Miller did in Capote, Foxcatcher seems to be trying to get at something darker in the American psyche. Though the theme never crystallizes, the movie repeatedly shows us how ugly competitiveness is encouraged on every level of society, sibling rivalry, class tensions, cutthroat professional sports, and raises the pertinent point that America is a country founded on a fascination with too easily accessible firearms. Even the illustrious du Pont dynasty, owners of the largest chemical company in the world, built their first fortune on ammunition. It’s a family legacy that seems to have trickled down the bloodline with that scene set on the rifle range, John shooting off a gun in the gym to kick off the beginning of a new day and berating the tank he orders for not coming with a fifty-caliber cannon, all of which ends up pointing to the final tragedy in a way meant to make it seem inevitable. Miller harbors an undeniable fascination for true crime and sees such violent eruptions as the byproduct of an unspecified American malaise. But while Foxcatcher flits about in fitful search, it doesn’t bring him any closer than Capote did to defining what that societal sickness might actually be.