Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall
Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Until I saw the trailer for Foxcatcher I had never heard of John du Pont or of his crime. I never got round to looking him up so I walked into the film without knowing the particulars of his story, which in a way might be a good thing since I don’t like going into films with preconceived notions. What I ended up seeing was a staggering film about a deeply disturbed man and the traumatising ordeal he inflicted upon two brothers. Even now the thought of John du Pont with his cold gaze and unnerving voice frightens me. I have no idea how accurate the film’s account of the story or its portrayal of du Pont is but to speculate on that might be to miss the point. Maybe this film isn’t about du Pont or the Schultz brothers, but is instead a film that uses their tale to tell a story about, amongst other things, the quest for and the cost of greatness.
We are first introduced to the wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic Gold Medallist who is dissatisfied with his station in life. He goes to give a talk at an elementary school where the children plainly do not who he is and are not interested in what he has to say. He gets mistaken for his older brother David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) who is also a gold medal winning wrestler, an early indication of the shadow that Mark lives under. He lives in a small apartment where he eats cheap food and every day is an endless cycle of training with his brother and going home. Mark is dissatisfied with his present state because he believes himself to be less than what he could be. Mark is a man who aspires to greatness. He wants to be a champion. He wants to be a role model. He wants to be the best wrestler in the world.
Enter John du Pont, played by an unrecognisable Steve Carell, a multi-millionaire who appeals towards Mark’s aspirations by offering him the chance to join his Foxcatcher team along with the best resources and publicity that money can buy so that he might win the gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark sees this opportunity as the big break he has been waiting for. He accepts and tries to persuade his brother to do the same. David, in contrast to Mark, is completely satisfied with where he is and has no desire to seize this chance. He has a wife whom he loves, children that he adores, and a training routine that works for him. Mark, who feels that his own achievements are somehow less because he has always lived under his brother’s shadow, accepts this. He rushes over to the Foxcatcher estate, excited at the prospect of going at it on his own. However his time with John du Pont proves to be a traumatic experience.
John du Pont, like Mark Schultz, is a man who aspires towards greatness and he expects to receive it. He comes from a very wealthy background in which he grew up wanting for nothing. He’s used to getting whatever he wants whenever he wants it and has developed a strong sense of self-entitlement. When David Schultz rejects du Pont’s offer, du Pont is stunned. He doesn’t understand the prospect of not getting what he wants or the concept of a man who cannot be bought. Similarly he fully expects to become an Olympic level wrestling coach despite not having the knowledge nor the experience for it. He speaks about wanting to give America hope by providing them heroes to admire because that is how he wants people to see him. Du Pont wants to be regarded as the all-American hero. A great deal of du Pont’s insecurity stems from his relationship with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who has always been discouraging towards him, saying that she doesn’t like seeing him do “something low” like wrestling. This sort of dismay hurts du Pont and causes him to vent his anger onto those around him, particularly on Mark Schultz. Perhaps du Pont’s resentment towards Mark is on some level because he sees him as the man he wishes he could have been, but more likely is that he abuses Mark in order to make himself feel superior.
Wrestling is often viewed as an animalistic sport and there is a strong sense that John du Pont views the wrestlers under his employ as little more than beasts and himself as their master. He often treats Mark as if he were nothing more than a pet, striking him and talking down to him. Although Mark has developed a friendship with du Pont and has grown to view him as a father figure, his affection is rewarded with disdain and abuse. Du Pont is a man who wants to be revered and believes that he is entitled to reverence by those he deems inferior to himself. When David Schultz does join the team his indifference towards du Pont appears to have a grating effect. Whatever it was that drove du Pont to murder David shall always remain a matter of speculation but the film suggests that du Pont was maddened by the thought of someone who did not look up to him and who did not rely on him, not dissimilar to the way that his own mother regarded him.
In Foxcatcher Bennett Miller delivers a dark, disturbing story about the scarring effects of a man in pursuit of respect, love and greatness. When all is said and done Mark Schultz survives du Pont’s malice, but not intact. A part of Mark has been grievously damaged by du Pont’s abuse, perhaps beyond repair. Being treated as a beast has had a horrendous effect on him that he may never escape. When we see Mark Schultz competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that his closing image is of him fighting in a cage. This film is as cold and as merciless as du Pont’s maliciousness and still gives me chills.