FOXCATCHER is an eerie examination of a true story about two brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz, who won gold medals in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics and a couple years later went to live on the Pennsylvania estate of a rich guy named John E. du Pont. The guy said he was a patriot and wrestling fan and wanted to help America win again. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but you immediately get the sense – in part from the foreboding grey skies and long, dry stretches with little dialogue and no music – that it’s gonna be something bad. I felt pretty confident this would end in some sort of fucked up tragedy and not with a Survivor song playing over a freeze frame on a joyful Channing Tatum (who plays Mark) being lifted by a congratulatory crowd of sports enthusiasts.
Steve Carrell plays du Pont and he makes him very odd. He leans his head back and leaves his mouth slightly open, like he’s watching you and is perpetually about to offer an observation. He wears a comically large fake nose and a nerdily tight Team Foxcatcher sweatshirt or windbreaker. Occasionally he has lines absurd enough to be in a Will Ferrell movie: “Don’t call me Mr. du Pont. My friends call me Golden Eagle, or just Eagle.” But whatever comedy may be inherent in the role, he’s intentionally un-milking it. This is his Serious Role, his Playing Against Type, his Robin Williams in ONE HOUR PHOTO. I mean, I’m sure it’s funnier than that magician movie he did, but it’s his most dramatic, not-going-for-laughs movie, and he’s successful at being creepy in it.
So Carrell’s been getting all the attention, but really Tatum as Mark is the lead, and he wears cauliflower ears and fakes an underbite, so throw him some nominations too, you knuckleheads. It’s not just noses that are acting, ears and chins also count. He’s brawny and inarticulate (kind of like FIGHTING, which I ought to watch again, that was a good one) but what’s different from most of his roles is how weak-minded he is. He’s unsure of himself and desperate to get out from under his brother’s shadow. He’s pathetically jealous of Dave (Mark Ruffalo)’s wife and kids when they’re more important to him than wrestling, and of Dave himself when du Pont brings him in to train the team that Mark built. Mark is very loyal to du Pont, and du Pont is very much the opposite. Like Bret the Hitman Hart and Vince McMahon in WRESTLING WITH SHADOWS. That’s a different type of wrestling, though.
Ruffalo is great in this role, and without being as big and bulky as the real guy manages to capture a real manly physicality that contrasts a gentle, calming personality. I never think of Ruffalo as much of a tough guy, even when he’s playing a Dirty Harry-like cop or an actual super hero, but here he does it. He carries himself like a wrestler and even while in conversation seems to have his hands ready to grasp and control anything that comes toward him. In fact, he often does put his hands on people, because that’s his art. He would also be good at pottery, I bet.
This movie definitely has a respect for this ancient and somewhat marginalized sport, and even takes a moment to show the wrestlers notice when they’re being overshadowed by MMA. In one (historically inaccurate) scene Mark and teammates are huddled in a little apartment watching an early Ultimate Fighting Championship. I like the idea of these highly trained Olympians trying to decide what to think about a guy in a cage getting his face smashed to a bloody pulp by an elbow. Without an insane rich guy funding them wouldn’t they be looking for work like this? Mark seems to respect it, others want to stay pretty.
The footage they’re watching is actually UFC 8, which happened several years later. The elbow is Gary Goodridge, the face is Paul Herrera. This is when it was still a tournament, and Goodridge later tapped out to Don Frye, the awesome mustache guy in GODZILLA FINAL WARS. (thank you Victor Morton for the correction.) I think the reason they chose to show that one is that just four months after his brother’s murder the real Mark Schultz fought Goodridge in UFC 9. It wasn’t an intentional career move – he was a last minute substitute for David Beniteau, who he’d been training, and who had broken his hand. Schultz won by TKO (because a cut on Goodridge’s head wouldn’t stop bleeding) and considered it redemption for his wrestling losses. That was his only professional MMA fight.
A little sports trivia for you there. This isn’t really a sports movie though, you’re not supposed to be too invested in them winning matches. It’s more about the dynamic between these three dudes, the wrestling brothers and the weirdo multi-millionaire in the track suit. And it’s also about the adventure of a simple dude being a guest in the alien world of the super-rich. He comes to take this job he was offered and the staff acts confused why he’s even there. Du Pont has servants but also guys that might be described as henchmen. Grizzled fixer type guys who could be his bodyguards or his people who hand out envelopes stuffed with cash. One of them is played by Anthony Michael Hall, who in my opinion has gotten alot more intimidating than when he was a kid.
Nobody at this Foxcatcher place knows how to have normal human relations. One guy quizzes Mark on his parents’ relationship. du Pont asks him if he likes birdwatching – does he look like a fucking birdwatcher to you? They show him his new home and hand him a VHS tape on “the history of the du Pont Dynasty.” He gets a severe warning that the horse stables belong to du Pont’s mother and are “off limits.” What exactly are they worried he’s gonna do?
In a way this is a story about American aristocracy. Somebody in a previous generation of this family made a ton of money selling weapons and chemicals, so this nutball is born rich and can do whatever the fuck he wants to do instead of work. Some rich people take advantage of this to build the Spruce Goose, produce Paul Thomas Anderson movies or animate THE BOXTROLLS. Eccentric, fun things that could improve the world. This guy is sometimes more on the scary side. For example he, uh, buys a tank. Some army guys come to deliver it, have him sign off on it. He brings Mark with him and looks it over and – forget that he’s an asshole to them because it doesn’t have the machine gun he wants – the crazy thing is that everybody acts like it makes sense to bring a tank to this guy’s house. Hey, he’s rich and he wants a tank. So he gets a tank.
(Wait a minute, I thought. Do I know about this? Was there some news story about a rich guy going on a tank rampage?)
We also see him training with police on his shooting range, and hear implications of them coming to him for tactical expertise or something. I wonder if he also appraises samurai swords? It seems like actually has no background in combat or law enforcement, but he does have a gun range and guns and stuff, so everybody acts as if it makes sense.
That’s what it is, it’s all about acting as if. When Mark first gets a call to come meet with du Pont, the voice on the line keeps telling him about “John E. du Pont, of the du Ponts,” like Mark should know who that is and be in awe. Because he’s from a rich family. And Mark, being a normal guy not from one of the richest families in America, is expected to be willing to drop everything and fly to this guy’s place to talk to him without any indication of what they’re going to talk about. And he does.
Mark buys the whole thing. He gets upset because du Pont is “an important man” and his sister-in-law (Sienna Miller, GI JOE AND THE RISE OF COBRA) says hi to him like a normal person instead of, I don’t know, curtsying or something. Why is du Pont an important man? Because he wrote a book about birds one time? You telling me you treat all ornithologists like kings?
Du Pont introduces himself as a wrestling coach, but there’s no evidence that he’s anything of the sort. For some reason that’s his fantasy, and his staff plays along. Mostly he walks around the gym while the wrestlers practice, looking thoughtful. Nobody cares, because he seems nice enough, and he put a roof over their heads. But it gets real uncomfortable when he starts pretending like he’s the actual coach. In real life du Pont opened his wrestling facility after his mother’s death, but it’s worth fudging that in the movie for the scene where mom (Vanessa Redgrave), who disapproves of wrestling because it’s “low,” gets wheeled in during a practice. Du Pont makes the wrestlers stop and take a knee while he makes a ridiculous speech and then demonstrates beginning wrestling moves to Olympians. There’s definitely a sense of “what the fuck is he doing?”, but the wrestlers, especially Dave, seem to feel sorry for him and play along.
It’s harder to just go with it when du Pont hires a crew to make a documentary about what an awesome coach he is. This was real. “Doc,” the guy who interviews Dave in the movie is the real guy, he acted as a consultant on FOXCATCHER and let them use all his raw footage as reference. This is another point where they sort of dampen the comedy. It could easily play as a hilarious Danny McBride scene, but they only allow it to be as funny as the real video. Hard not to laugh a little, but also you can sense that this is trouble, this guy’s delusions are getting dangerous.
END SPOILERS TO BE DISCUSSED THIS PARAGRAPH. One really depressing thing about the story as presented in the movie is that Dave is killed for his ability to stand up for himself. Mark allows himself to become du Pont’s GI Joe doll. He flies to him, works for cheap, even goes through a brief, unfortunate cocaine/frosted tips/leather jacket period to be du Pont’s sidekick, his Kaeto Kaehlin. Dave is shown consistently making reasonable demands for himself. He won’t take the job until he can bring his family with him, he insists on having one day a week with them, he makes sure Mark is taken care of after leaving. In real life I don’t think anybody ever figured out why du Pont (who thought Nazis were conspiring against him and that his treadmills were time machines) killed Dave, but in the movie it seems to be that he can’t control him enough. It just infuriates him. I am an important man! I am the Golden Eagle! I will come over to your house on Sunday if I want to!
Director Bennett Miller previously did CAPOTE and MONEYBALL, so this is a triple whammy for that guy. (I’m not counting his documentary THE CRUISE, because the whiny tour guide philosopher guy it’s about was so fingernails-on-a-chalkboard annoying in WAKING LIFE that I consider any movie with him in it to be lost.)
This subject was literally handed to Miller in an envelope at a DVD signing. A guy gave him newspaper clippings and said it would make a good movie for him. He agreed and became obsessed. It’s been in the works so long that at one point he wanted Heath Ledger to star in it. When he chose Tatum it was on the basis of A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS. Not even STEP UP.
After all that time he’s made something that steers away from some of the more lurid aspects (there’s only brief hints of a possible gay crush or of the 48 hour police standoff before du Pont’s arrest) and somehow is all the more fascinating for it. I like this one. Consider me Team Foxcatcher.
Miller told Keith Phipps of The Dissolve that he considered including the fact that du Pont was buried in his Team Foxcatcher singlet.
Slate has a good write up about what the movie changed from the real story.
The Daily Mail tells us that even before Dave’s murder Mark had a plan to sell all his things, hide in the bushes outside of du Pont’s mansion, shoot him in the head with a crossbow and and move to Brazil and start a family. “He ultimately decided against the plan,” it says. Then at the end of the article Schultz says some surprisingly sympathetic things about du Pont.
Doc’s documentaries depicted in the movie (one called “Quest For the Best” aired on the Discovery Channel) aren’t on Youtube, but here’s a puff piece somebody else made about du Pont for an awards banquet:
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.