Close reading: Bennett Miller’s ‘Foxcatcher’ (2014)

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (2014) tells the true story of professional wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), opening in the aftermath of their joint gold medal victory at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

In the three years since that triumph, the brothers have fallen on hard times. Reduced to training together in a rundown gymnasium, Mark is seen making a less than inspirational speech to a bored audience of elementary school students in exchange for a $20 cheque, without which he wouldn’t be able to afford the hamburger lunch he eats alone in his car.

Mark represses his anger and buries himself in routine, lacking the loving family unit that Dave can turn to. Deliverance comes in the guise of an unexpected phone call from one John E. du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir to a chemical fortune and one of the richest men in America. Du Pont flies Mark out to his palatial estate in Pennsylvania and offers to fund and manage the USA team at the forthcoming Olympics in Seoul. Schultz warily accepts.

Moving into a guesthouse on the grounds of du Pont’s sprawling 800-acre Foxcatcher Farm, Mark quickly bonds with his new mentor, selects a squad and achieves success on the mat, eventually convincing Dave to join him on Team Foxcatcher before the project quickly begins to unravel.

Marketed as a psychological thriller rather than a conventional sports biopic, Miller’s film actually turns out to be a study of a toxic relationship between a “kept man” and his wealthy patron, the former soon finding himself trapped in a gilded cage and reduced to lashing out at his keeper, who in turn sees him as little more than a disposable plaything.

That phrase “kept man” of course has sexual connotations. It’s a euphemism for a gigolo or escort, someone who feigns intimacy for financial gain, a state of affairs that’s usually based on pragmatic compromise and is often mutually exploitative. Mark’s relationship with du Pont is more nebulous than that and never explicitly takes a sexual turn, beyond some possible tension in the air during a shirtless work-out scene and Tatum’s brief appearance with frost-tipped hair (although I’d argue this is merely screen shorthand for Mark’s blossoming sense of self under du Pont’s wing, rather than a definite coming out). The real Mark Schultz was, however, concerned enough about Foxcatcher’s apparent homoerotic undertones to angrily distance himself from the film on social media.

Despite this missing ingredient, du Pont is clearly comfortable with the notion that people can be bought and sold (“I’m getting Dave. And I don’t care how much it costs”) and is used to hired company, confessing that his only childhood friend was a boy his mother paid to socialise with him. Mark is similarly a pal on salary, a kept man because he allows himself to become completely dependent on du Pont’s generosity, the contract he signs a surrender to a master by a once proud sportsman in thrall to no one.

Like hack screenwriter Joe Gillis entombed in the crumbling Beverley Hills mansion of faded star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Scott Thorson cooped up in Liberace’s glitzy Las Vegas palace in Behind the Candelabra (2012), Mark is now a millionaire’s toy effectively living under house arrest. Ostensibly a state-of-the-art training facility surrounded by Arcadian woodland and rolling paddocks, Foxcatcher Farm becomes a prison to the wrestler, who is soon rattling his chains in anguish. The loss of liberty, of independence, of control eats into Mark as du Pont’s ill-advised introduction of bourbon and cocaine affects his performances in the ring. Finally, he comes to resent his owner. As in The Shining (1980), heavy winter snowfall further compounds Team Foxcatcher’s isolation from the rest of the world and allows this sickly psychological atmosphere to fester.

But it was never du Pont’s intention to hinder Mark’s growth. At least initially, he set out with the reverse in mind, hoping to create the ideal conditions in which his prized acquisition might flourish. And their brief friendship, stemming from mutual recognition, is genuine. Both are lonely, neglected souls dissatisfied with their status. Mark has not received the adulation he’d expected his Olympic success to yield and feels overshadowed by his sibling, while du Pont, recently divorced, has never succeeded in stamping his personality on the monolith that is the family legacy, despite busying himself with innumerable hobbies and worthy causes. Mark is pathetically grateful to have found someone other than Dave who believes in his abilities while “Eagle” has bought himself the doting protégé he’s always dreamed of.

Combined with Mark’s growing claustrophobia, it’s the slow dawning realisation of his mentor’s confused motives and increasing mental instability that really sours the milk. As du Pont’s mask slips, the “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” is revealed to be a fantasist preoccupied with military history who regards himself as a great general in waiting. Du Pont has settled on wrestling as a means of winning personal glory, rather than team success, without any real knowledge of the sport or its tactics, talking up the undertaking as a grand patriotic gesture intended to restore American pride, whereas he’s actually far more concerned with impressing his disdainful mother. The dying du Pont matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), however, regards wrestling as a “low sport”, seeing in it nothing of the nobility she finds in thoroughbred horseracing, dooming her son’s endeavour before it’s even begun.

The latter’s egotism is such that he can’t begin to countenance the fact that he is only respected by his team — handpicked by Mark and coached by Dave — because he is bankrolling the venture. The episode in Foxcatcher in which the wheelchair-bound Mrs. du Pont watches her clueless son attempt to organise a rudimentary training drill with his men in their costly custom-built gym is one of the most excruciating Comedy of Embarrassment scenes I can recall and is beautifully played by Carrell, an expert in the field from his days on the US remake of The Office (2005–13).

Having disrupted Mark’s strict regime, the heir finally (and hypocritically) lashes out, taking his pet to task for giving the squad a rest day from training. Du Pont slaps Mark’s face and calls him an “ape” in front of his teammates, a rather fey assault and a word that betrays both du Pont’s envy of the strapping Schultz physique and an aristocrat’s disdain for an upstart he clearly regards as little more than a vulgar necessity, a means to an end. Mark, like Gene Kelly’s artist Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris (1951), is embarrassed at how his relationship with his patron might be perceived by others and this humiliating episode ensures it never recovers.

The arrival of Dave only serves to prolong Mark’s misery, a sad irony given that the brother who raised him is the only source of genuine warmth and love in his life and, indeed, in Foxcatcher itself. Mark and Dave’s wrestling scenes together are amazingly intimate and, amid the practice of grappling and holding, we realise that this is the only way Mark has of embracing his brother, a terrible thought. Miller deserves every credit for refusing to seek obvious laughs in his portrayal of the sport when lesser talents might have mocked the sight of grown men in primary coloured leotards writhing around on the floor, or at least excused themselves with self-conscious wisecracks. Unlike Mrs. du Pont, Foxcatcher respects the physical toil and discipline of the sport and the athletes who make it their life’s work. It’s this sense that wrestling is all that the Schultz brothers have that makes Dave’s fate at the hands of his benefactor all the more tragic.

For after Mark’s eventual divorce from Team Foxcatcher, du Pont becomes increasingly wayward, preoccupied with drink and morose introspection. Like Charles Foster Kane, he rattles around an empty Xanadu, listening to the echoes, without even the latter character’s satisfaction at having built the place himself. Liseter Hall, the grand mansion at the heart of the estate, is a mausoleum for the living, a monument to Old Money and the rewards of industry decked out with other people’s hunting trophies and his mother’s equestrian prizes. None of its splendour is thanks to John Eleuthère du Pont and he is no more able to escape the glare of his ancestors than Poe’s Roderick Usher. Like that haunted aesthete, his madness finally consumes him.

For my money, Foxcatcher is more consistent than Birdman and more substantial than Whiplash (both 2014) amongst its rival Oscar contenders. Miller’s film is utterly compelling from its bleak opening to its devastating finale, evoking America’s horror of unfulfilled potential and benefiting from three extremely impressive lead performances. Look up the real John du Pont on YouTube to see how accurate Carrell’s portrayal is and how much more this is than simply a clown seeking an opportunity to be taken seriously. Ruffalo brings enormous compassion to Dave while Channing Tatum builds on the promise of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) to show us that he’s a great deal more than a handsome idiot or professional good sport. Arguably the script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman could be clearer about the exact timeframe involved, but this is otherwise a really fine achievement from the director of Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2012).

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