FOXCATCHER [2014]

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Directed by Bennett Miller, Written by E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave

There is no doubt that Foxcatcher is a well-crafted film that has been meticulously put together. A lot of thought has gone into the screenplay and the script, and this is apparent from the very first frames; old footage of aristocratic-types riding prided horses, with ‘FOXCATCHER FARMS’ logos visible. This cuts to the title, and suddenly we are instantly presented with the opposite as Mark Schultz sits in his car eating fast food, and then soon after dining on gourmet 2-minute-noodles. The movie makes it points subtly, for the most part, and they are all relevant to society today.

One could use the tired phrase that this film ‘has it all’. It most certainly covers a broad range of subjects in a skilful way that does not interfere with the narrative, but the keen observer will notice many symbolic moments of the film that allude to many aspects of society: Class-divide, patriotism, US sport/competitiveness, wealth, vanity, jealousy, brotherhood. Wrestling.

Despite the fact that this film depicts the true events of a seminal chapter of Mark and Dave Schultz’s lives, two Olympic gold medallists in wrestling, the film I saw spoke about much, much more than wrestling, simply using the true and utterly engaging story to illustrate its ideals.

Brotherly rivalry is almost instantly established from the beginning. There is minimal dialogue in an early scene where David and Mark have a heated practice session. With no dialogue from Mark or between himself and his brother to indicate the fact, it is still apparent that Mark harbours jealousy towards his brother and the recognition he has received, as well as his wrestling skills and comfortable family life. Arguably this was the driving force that lead Mark to Foxcatcher farms. Commenting that he grew up with his brother, perhaps Mark is looking for a father figure of some kind. When he meets with John E. Du Pont, a man he knows nothing about, their shared (if somewhat misguided) patriotism and passion for wrestling is what draws Mark to the farm, though upon arriving, Du Pont doesn’t seem to want anything to do with Mark.

It is very refreshing to see a film that is somewhat critical of the US, in particular with concept of patriotism and to some extent capitalism, rather than flying the patriotic flag of countless other US films. Again, this is not a major focus of the film, but it is evident in the behaviour of John E Du Pont and his entourage. Du Pont even refers to himself as ‘The Eagle’, which of course adorns the coat of arms of the US. American flags can be seen flying everywhere, and Du Pont makes sure to inform Mark of a battle of the Civil War, fought by ‘patriots’.

This subplot of a kind mixes with class separation seamlessly, as Mark is given residence on the property, but is strictly informed that the ‘big house’ is off-limits, as are the prized horses of Du Pont’s mother. Mark is conflicted as Du Pont shows great respect for his wrestling ability and his future, yet treats him in a passive-aggressive, condescending way, disallowing him from his house unless invited.

A great example of this disparity in social class is near the start of film, soon after Mark has made his pilgrimage to Foxcatcher farms. We see him cross-legged in front of a TV screen. He seems transfixed as he watches a tape about the Du Pont Family: “A dynasty in wealth and power”. But when the camera closes in on his face, we see him lost in thought, looking almost confused and uncomfortable, looking down at the ground as the film announces the family’s immense wealth; a concept foreign to Mark’s hard life. The film ends in fireworks; the words “The Du Ponts: Americas Wealthiest Family” ensuring that Mark knows who he is dealing with. In every scene in fact, there is an unspoken distance between the two characters that speaks volumes. I have since read that director Bennett Miller intentionally kept Carrell and Tatum separated for much of the shoot to achieve this effect, and he succeeds in doing so. However, class is not the only thing that separates these two men, despite Mark’s initial naïve assumptions. Their personalities could not be more opposing, with perhaps a trait that they share, though for very different reasons: a desperate need for validation, for recognition.

Once Du Pont manages to convince Mark’s brother into joining the squad, elements of brotherly rivalry rear their heads again, much like some of the first scenes in which it is made obvious that Mark harbours some resentment towards his brother. In every one of these instances, these points are almost purely illustrated. Mark never utters a word against his brother, but his body language and behaviour tell a different story. Du Pont’s behaviour does not help the tension between the brothers.

So, the main question of the film now becomes: what are Du Pont’s motives exactly? Is he so vain that he simply wants his name attached to a successful US sporting institution? He obviously wants to impress his mother also, but after breeding prize-winning horses, she sees wrestling as ‘low’; another example of division between class, even within a family. However, along with these possibilities that we are made aware of, there is a lot we are not told, as Du Pont’s character and motives become increasingly blurred and his behaviour increasingly erratic.

This creates a sense of uneasiness that begins to loom over every event, enhanced by the colour scheme (or lack thereof), with mostly overcast days and muted colours filling the screen. Du Pont is an odd character and his vanity and desperation for approval becomes more apparent. This is most obvious in one scene where his ‘pupils’ pretend to watch and learn from him as if he is Yoda, for his mother is watching. However she is entirely disinterested with what she is seeing, not because she can see through the charade, but because of an obviously fractured mother and son relationship.

I was fortunate enough to not know the history of this story, so the last act was a very pleasant if not shocking surprise. Despite being based on a true story, the film builds momentum and atmosphere with ease, leading to the events that close the film, as if it was a fictional, written piece.

Carrel’s transformation, combined with the first time I have ever been engaged by a Channing Tatum performance, this movie excels on all levels. Having dabbled in the sport a bit myself, the techniques on display are accurate; the sport of wrestling has obviously been studied and this is shown in the technique of the wrestling throughout the movie.

5/5 – For a film based on true events, this covers a remarkable amount of socially relevant points, which can’t be an easy thing to do when the story is based roughly 30 years ago. The incredibly interesting story of the Schultz brothers and their relationship with John Du Pont, combined with the social commentary, results in a multi-faceted film with many ways to enjoy and interpret. This is only second perfect score I have ever given.

written by epilepticmoondancer