FOXCATCHER Movie Review – Or the American Dream Exposed
Under the right circumstances and more importantly, under the right direction, true-crime stories, the more sensational, the better, can be more than just about the crime itself. They can be seen and presented as a microcosm for something larger, for something deeper, for what they say about contemporary America both as a country and as a mythological construct. That, at least, was Bennett Miller’s (Moneyball, Capote) intention when he decided to turn the events at the center of his third film, Foxcatcher, into a feature-length film. Almost a decade in the making (preceding his involving in Moneyball by several years), Foxcatcher certainly doesn’t lack for ambition, but Miller’s curiously detached direction often fails to make the case for its central premise/thesis or for bringing the audience into empathetic connection with the characters.
When we first meet Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a gold medal winner in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics, he’s preparing to give a motivational speech, but instead of giving the speech in front of his peers or business leaders at a conference, he’s giving a platitude-filled speech to a group of disinterested elementary school preteens. His halting, discomfiting efforts yield him a paltry check for $20, just enough to net him an unsatisfying meal at a local fast food. Adding insult to injury, the school administrator who writes him the check mistakes him for his older, more successful brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), like Mark an Olympic gold medalist, but unlike Mark, a family man with a steady gig as a wrestling coach at a private academy. Instead, he lives alone in a semi-rundown apartment, with only an overstuffed trophy case both as a reminder of his past glories and his present disappointments.
Filled with rage, desperation, and self-loathing, Mark epitomizes the American Dream, not the American Dream of material success (although that’s part of it), but the American Dream where hard work, effort, and determination are rewarded with respect, admiration, and social prestige. In short, Mark, like David, believes wholeheartedly, in meritocracy and much of the rage he harbors centers on the disconnection between the meritocratic ideal he aspired to achieve (and did) and the results (shunted to the side, ignored, after the Olympics). Mark’s strained relationship with David, built on years of deference to his older, more successful brother, adds to Mark’s anger-fueled despair. Their first scene together, culminating in wrestling practice that leaves Mark with a bloody nose, says almost everything we need to know about their complex, contradictory relationship.
An unlikely offer from John du Pont (Steve Carell), one of the millionaire heirs to the du Pont chemical fortune, seemingly changes everything for Mark. Du Pont, a dilettante by nature, imagines himself the savior of U.S. wrestling (an amateur sport then and now), renovating Foxcatcher, a horse farm owned and operated by his family, into a state-of-the-art facility. Once Mark says yes, other wrestlers follow, but David doesn’t. He rejects du Pont’s offer to coach the team, citing his family and his current job, but over time — all offscreen — du Pont wears the older Schultz brother down. Once David arrives at Foxcatcher, Mark’s relationship with du Pont, based on a combination of money, loyalty, and Mark’s desire for a mentor/father figure, steadily erodes. A toxic, inevitably destructive relationship emerges between the three men.
Eager to see the relationship between du Pont and the Schultz brothers as more than just another true-crime story — compelling on even the most superficial level — Miller mines the Schultz brothers’ tragic story, sometimes successfully, sometimes redundantly for a takedown of the American Dream (available to few, mostly of the already wealthy), the reality-distorting effects of entitled, privilege, and wealth, and American/Western masculinity (and its discontents). With Foxcatcher as proof of his thesis, Miller has little room for medical diagnoses (du Pont was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic), instead relying on du Pont’s curdled relationship with a domineering, judgmental mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), and the younger du Pont’s efforts, each one a failure, to obtain her her approval, as a key, if not central, explanation for du Pont’s increasingly bizarre, destructive behavior. If so, it’s a simplistic, reductive psychological explanation.
Not surprisingly, Foxcatcher can be a grim, bleak, downbeat audience experience. Shot in a muted, autumnal color palate and subdued lighting, Foxcatcher rarely breaks free of Miller’s purposely monotone, overtly precise approach to the Schultz brothers and du Pont. Ultimately, however, it’s the exceptionally fine trio of performances, played in contrasting, conflicting styles (monosyllabic brooder for Tatum, effusively open extrovert for Ruffalo, creepily off-kilter by Carell) that make Foxcatcher a must-see experience regardless of interest in the subject matter or the upcoming awards season.