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Film Review: Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (2014; Directed by Bennett Miller)

Foxcatcher is a film about how family connections breed simmering personality pathologies like multiplying bacteria on a festering wound. It’s concerned with the masculine American id, ever defined as hegemonic and ever catered to, and its chronic inadequacy in furnishing the psycho-social fuel required to run the perpetual motor of self-regard for such demanding male egos. Its central triad of men choose to express their ambitions, to project their emotional longing, in a highly physical manner, and yet their emotions are fraught and dangerous mysteries, to others as well as to themselves. Tragedy seems to always be inevitable for such figures. Bennett Miller’s patient, subtle film renders this tragedy as simultaneously grand and metaphorical, intimate and microcosmic, impulsive and coldly calculated.

Foxcatcher relates a dramatized take on the true story of Team Foxcatcher, a prominent competitive wrestling training circle funded and hosted on his family estate by multimillionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell). du Pont recruits the Schultz brothers, younger Mark (Channing Tatum) and elder Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both Olympic gold medalists, to coach and compete under the team’s wrestling banner. Relations eventually sour, Mark leaves the fold, and the moody du Pont shoots and kills Dave without apparent reason (beyond that of unspecified mental illness). This much is public record, though maybe also a spoiler to the unfamiliar.

No matter. Knowing what will happen in Foxcatcher does not make the road to the closing horror any less rewarding. The film moves gradually, deliberately, with purpose. Much like, I suppose, a wrestler on the mat, circling his opponent, feeling for weaknesses and asserting strengths. The Schultz brothers, as the script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman presents them, display a classic (one might even say clichéd) sibling relationship. The elder Dave, married with children, overshadows the inscrutable loner Mark, at least in the latter’s mind. It’s not totally in Mark’s head, though; the $20 fee he receives for speaking to a grade school assembly about his Olympic gold is originally written out to Dave and he has to correct it to collect it.

There’s a real affection between the brothers, though, even if the lonely Mark needs Dave more than the more socially integrated Dave needs Mark. Their relationship is one of physical definition, as one eloquent sequence of on-mat sparring expresses. Tatum and Ruffalo manifest a primal closeness, grabbing, pushing, and touching like bears or great apes or another non-linguistic animal engaging in healthy socialization. Dave manifests a similar physical closeness with his children, but Mark has trouble opening up about his emotions to his brother in a verbal manner, however. Channing Tatum’s general weakness as a performer, the slack-jawed dimbulb pose that is the default setting of his expressive features, is applied here to suggest a depth of repressed desires. Tatum’s Mark Schultz is a metaphor for Tatum himself: he’s trapped in his impressive, athletic body, and only distantly grasps how to extend his identity beyond this corporeal reality.

When a lucrative offer comes in from du Pont to relocate to the wealthy family’s compound in Pennsylvania, Mark jumps at the opportunity even if it is calculated to attract the real prize (Dave) along as well. Reluctant to uproot his family, Dave stays away, allowing Mark and John du Point to bond in his absence, forming a tentative and weird father-son proxy relationship that the orphaned Mark (raised mostly by his older brother, adding a further dimension to their relations) and the childless du Pont both try a bit too hard to press into service.

To these unsettled sibling and substitute-parent connections is added a forbidding, highly disapproving mother, Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave). An old-money aristocrat with an equestrian bent, Jean sniffs dismissively that her sound-alike-named son John’s enthusiasm for “a low sport” such as wrestling is reflective of a defect of character. Her expressions of disapproval wound du Pont, and he lashes out in transference, usually at Mark; one such outburst cripples their friendship not so much from the abuse and humiliation the millionaire inflicts on the wrestler, but from his recourse to redoubling his offer to bring Dave into Team Foxcatcher, a hurtful rebuke of Mark’s wrestling prowess that serves to inflame his underlying psychological and self-esteem issues.

If the Schultzes’ deepest wants are only made manifest in a tactile manner on the wrestling mat, then John du Pont’s identity is tied up in symbols, filtered and mediated by his inheritance of wealth and privilege. On Mark’s first visit to Foxcatcher Farm, he is brought there in a helicopter and passes over Valley Forge, where George Washington and the Continental Army steeled themselves in frozen patience for the coming struggle for independence in 1777-78. Mark waits to meet du Pont in the Colonial Revival finery of the estate’s sitting room, but is ushered instead to a basement trophy room, a subterranean man-cave for du Pont nonetheless dominated by the trophies of his mother’s champion horses.

John du Pont tells Mark that his friends call him “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle”, although his later admission to having no friends (beyond a chauffeur’s son that his mother paid to befriend him in childhood) indicates that he only wishes that they would. He’s a birdwatcher (actually an accomplished ornithologist) and encourages the hobby in Mark (it does not seem to stick). In many key scenes, Miller intercuts shots of taxidermied birds around the family premises, including a prominent, rampant eagle looming behind du Pont as he films one of his self-aggrandizing documentaries to propagandize his Team Foxcatcher project (the name itself has a historical continuity with the fox hunt, that traditional aristocratic blood sport which is visually detailed in the opening credits). Miller seems to be following Alfred Hitchcock deliberately in associating these stuffed birds with an overbearing maternal presence, as was famously done in Psycho.

The du Pont fortune was founded on gunpowder manufacture, and John du Pont’s business in the film, despite the diversification of the family corporation, is stubbornly connected to arms dealing. He inspects tanks and a machine gun, has military brass coming in and out of his office as Mark waits to speak with him about wrestling. It could be extrapolated that the tactile conflict of wrestling (which du Pont himself begins to “compete” in) is a transference of the man’s repressed guilt at contributing as a supplier to a mechanized, dehumanized strain of imperialist warfare. If so, this is a secondary weight to du Pont’s overwhelming desire for praise and acceptance from the world, especially to compensate for the lack of such treatment from his battle-axe of a mother. This is glimpsed in his propaganda films, his awkward but chummy interactions with Mark, Dave, and the other wrestlers on the team, and most memorably as he and Mark snort cocaine while choppering to a gala dinner in his honour, reciting the various descriptions of his prominence and range of interests like an absurd mantra. But it’s also bubbling beneath the surface of Carell’s contained, oddly tempered performance, visible like the first hints of boiling water.

Late in the film, du Pont’s inherent need to self-mythologize precipitates the closing tragic crisis. Though there is no direct, connective narrative thread between the scenes, Dave’s persistent inability to articulate the nature of du Pont’s role in his life in the required inspirational bromides for one of the documentary films and du Pont’s internalized frustration at failing to achieve the high goals one of those films set for him and his wrestling team appear to mingle in the millionaire’s unconscious and turn him into a murderer. Dave’s pride at his rise from a humble station to Olympic gold will not allow him to even pretend that a filthy-rich dabbler in the sport he has excelled in might be his “mentor”, and du Pont is frustrated and wounded that his tremendous advantages have not allowed him to succeed upwards as men with lesser advantages such as the Schultzes have done. Mark, the wounded figure who unwillingly brought Dave and du Pont together, has departed the scene and taken a key mediating element out of the situation. The results are tragic, but then so is the aimless, deeply unrighteous power struggle of the American male psyche that is depicted so masterfully in Foxcatcher.

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