Oct 11, 2014
A horror film. As dark a movie as you'll ever see with a Hollywood cast, Bennett Miller's film about millionaire John du Pont's relationship with Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz, is profoundly disturbing. I came out of it wanting to dunk myself in a bath of Clorox. This is high praise. I, for one, am grateful for an American film that challenges our increasingly unsustainable obsession with heroism.
Like most movies based on real stories, Foxcatcher may not be entirely faithful to the real events that transpired, but it takes them as a springboard to explore the corrupting power of money.
It is about a loser with all the money in the world, an extremely creepy Steve Carell, who takes Mark Schultz (a solid Channing Tatum), an Olympic gold winner with zero money, under his wing. du Pont is obsessed with Olympic wrestling, with patriotism, winning, guns and the American way. He is heir to the enormous du Pont fortune and he lives alone; that is, with his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave, doing almost nothing and killing it). He is unloved and deeply warped by unhappy money.
The real heroes, the Schultz brothers, are hardworking regular people trying to make a living. Somehow, they were unable or were not chosen to parlay their olympic gold medals into endorsement deals. So they are losers, stuck working hard to eke out a life. Meanwhile, John Eleuthére du Pont, scion of a blue blood American family is, by all accounts, a winner. He has inherited everything he could possibly want, except what he can't have, which is a life. du Pont is a failed athlete, a wannabe coach. He wants to be a mentor, father figure, brother, teacher to a winner, by which he assumes he will garner the admiration of the entire nation. But he is too feeble, or too pathetic, or too damaged to do anything worthy. Thus, he achieves personal glory by buying his prestige.
It is possible that he wants to be the father he wishes he had, or that he gets a kick out of watching semi-naked muscular men pile up on top of each other. Wisely, Miller and the screenwriters (Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye) don't clutter the film with cheap psychology or flashbacks of his lonely childhood. In one scene, he opens up to Mark, and with one line about a childhood friend, we learn all we need to know about what it is like to be him.
Miller lets the story unfold at a stately pace as we watch with growing despair how toxic du Pont's embrace of Mark Schultz is. Carrell, sporting a fake nose, bad teeth, bad skin, and bad eyes, summons a man who seems to be asphyxiating under his own repression, of something so bottled up, it sucks the life out of anyone, including himself. He is an inspired choice, since as a comedian, and particularly as Michael Scott, in The Office, Carell has demonstrated he's capable of going to uncomfortable extremes of maladroitness, self-delusion, self-absorption and lack of social finesse. Even though the character of John du Pont is humorless, he cuts so ridiculous a figure as a wrestling groupie, Carell finds ways to sneak in the funny, in a very unsettling way. Like Michael Scott, du Pont is a loser with power, but from hell and on steroids.
du Pont wants the Schultz brothers to come to his remote mansion and train with him, but David (an excellent Mark Ruffalo), the eldest, and the real father figure to Mark, is a high school coach and a decent family man, and he doesn't want to go. However, with enough bags of money, du Pont eventually lures him. You think you can't buy integrity? Think again. du Pont's money is as irresistible to David and the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Federation as it must be to our long-suffering representatives, who can't campaign for office without begging for corporate munificence. Once the checks are written, politicians cannot be beholden to anyone but their benefactors, just as Mark and David have to cater to the man who is buying their lives. It is true corruption and it destroys everything.
One can extrapolate this story of one rich man's capacity to buy everything with money with the nature of life in America. After all, du Pont is a patriot, as concerned with the notion of freedom as any of those rapacious Republican titans of industry who bandy the term about only for what suits them. He talks in empty platitudes about freedom. A freedom that apparently only applies to those with means. Freedom to buy your way around so that everybody is at your service. The kind of freedom that turns others into slaves.
In du Pont's admiration for Mark there must be a tinge of envy. His is not the well-intentioned attention of a real mentor. It's the manipulation of a narcissist. Miller doesn't tip his hand before he has to, which makes Foxcatcher a harrowing movie. As we discover du Pont's mind games, and his psychological troubles, we realize in growing horror that his charitable motivations are a calculated ruse to aggrandize himself. His manipulations and his detachment from normality really creep up on you.
With enough money, everything becomes a circus. The wrestlers have no choice but to indulge du Pont's pathetic coaching fantasies. In this movie, du Pont can't wrestle, let alone coach, his way out of a paper bag, nor can he be a true role model for anyone, since it is all a lie. Perhaps if he were a European aristocrat, he'd be content to snort his millions up his nose, lose them at Monte Carlo, waste them at Saint Tropez, or whatever it is those people do. But as an American, he is delirious with the imperative to be heroic. He has the misfortune of being a loser in the land that does not suffer them gladly. But unlike most losers, he is armed with money, and extremely dangerous.