Foxcatcher – The bleak world of American capital. (Film Review)
Number one on the seven social sins penned by Mohandas K Gandhi in Young India in 1925 is Wealth Without Work. Foxcatcher is a film primarily about Capitalism and why it’s dying. In many ways it is the third in a trilogy by Bennett Miller, starting with Capote, about the commodification of crime, turning to Moneyball about the capitalisation of sport and resulting in Foxcatcher which combines the stark observations of the previous two films. Moneyball is definitely the most upbeat of the three films, with Foxcatcher being the most bleak, but Foxcatcher is the complex amalgam of the previous two, even through to the narrow perspective of the homoeroticism of masculine sports, particularly sports like wrestling. One beautiful scene focuses in on Mark Schultz’s face as John du Pont wrestles above him making it appear Mark were being well and truly fucked. The feud that eventually breaks out between the two men is reminiscent of a wife previously valued for her acquiescence who is subsequently punished with rejection when her mate suddenly loses respect for her despite upholding her end of the unspoken bargain. Like a jilted wife, Mark Schultz can’t be appeased, can’t be reasoned with and to preserve his pride can only leave.
John du Pont is a man portrayed (apparently accurately according to the real life Mark Schultz) by Steve Carell as blank canvass for painting the emptiness of the American Dream. An ugly, socially awkward Peter Pan of a man whose mother paid children to play with him, and who lives in a house that is a perfect replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Du Pont in many ways is a watered down Jefferson paint-by-numbers copy, seeing himself as accomplished by birthright and therefore prone to the exaggeration of any accomplishment and the overstatement of any ability. Interestingly, Steve Carell gives a dead pan character performance, as if there was little or no substance to the man, rather only a carbon copy of so many alternate facsimiles. It is an erudite, wholly deliberate portrayal, Carell’s du Pont stands apart from the other actors as nuanced, deep and complex individuals. Du Pont’s very problem is that he is a cartoon, more dream than substance and that nothing can cure him of the deformity privilege brings, nor from the fact that he never moved out of his mother’s house.
But the real emptiness of Foxcatcher comes not from the dead eyes of John du Pont, but from the scarred and sacrificed hope of Mark Schultz. Played by Channing Tatum in the role he has been warming up to, Mark Schultz is the perfect embodiment of the hard worker abandoned by the American Dream. There are very few John du Ponts in the world, but there are alarmingly millions of Mark Schultz’s, those who believe that striving and the defeat of competition will result in the company promised by the Ayn Randian utopia when Atlas finally shrugs. The horrific truth of the American Dream is that hard work and rising to the top of your chosen pile doesn’t result in the trappings of success. Rarely has this been better exemplified than in the poverty-stricken Mark Schultz preaching to a bunch of bored school children and going home to his dollar noodles for dinner. In the end he is a victim of the obscurity of his sport, no matter how good he is at it, and it is the same obscurity that du Pont claims he doesn’t deserve that drew du Pont to him in the first place. Du Pont is looking for an easy win – Mark Schultz who worked incredibly hard, shows remarkable discipline and struggled all his life to get to the top hands his accomplishments over to du Pont that easily – because he is convinced by the same Randian rhetoric all those who love American values are convinced by.
In the face of all those heroic sports films such as Raging Bull and Rocky, Foxcatcher gives us a more accurate portrayal of the arrival at the top of the mountain. It is not laced with pride, for the only person who truly understands what it takes to earn a gold medal is another gold medalist. It is not adorned with riches, wet women or hoards of clapping fans. The thing the Schultz’s of the world understand and the du Ponts can never know, is the inadequacy of the prize in the face of strength gained on the journey. It is the rarity, the undiscoverability, the secret nature of success that makes it all the more special. It is separate and superior to any reward.
While the film may be consistently and oppressively bleak (there are no spoilers here – we all know what John du Pont did) Miller obviously designs it this way to diffuse the focus on du Pont as a madman. Du Pont is a mad man, but that detracts from Miller’s primary point, which centres around the failure of Mark Schultz to attract fame and fortune even though he is the best at what he did. Du Pont kills Dave for apparently no reason at the end of the film, but cinematographer Greig Fraser’s oppressive heaviness is not to signal this impending doom, but rather to echo Mark Schultz’s point made in his own memoirs – that he doesn’t understand why he couln’t see who John du Pont was from the start. If the film was about the shooting, it would have been Dave’s story, not Mark’s. The chilling point remains, it shouldn’t take us the death of Dave Schultz to recognize John du Ponts, but it does.
Greig Fraser paints a dark gun mettle grey over the film not as a herald of the impending doom of du Ponts actions, but to emphasise the power finances have to dull the critical faculties and give someone like du Pont unfettered access to that which he has bought rather than earned. The story of Foxcatcher is a sorry tale, shooting or no shooting, and Fraser and Miller assume an oppressive weight over the entirety of the narrative that is emphasized by the eventual killing but not informed by it. If there were no shooting, Foxcatcher wouldn’t change much – and this is Miller point.