Movie Review: Foxcatcher


Put me in, coach. Image via New York Times

You would have to be either really talented, or a really big troll, in order to take a story this insane and make it kind of boring. Sure, Foxcatcher is not a bad film, but it has the look of sad puppy dog eyes begging a little too hard for some Oscar love.

Here is a true crime story that seems too strange to be true. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a gold medal winning Olympic wrestler who now lives more like a bum than a world class athlete. If he’s lucky, the tiny paychecks he receives will get him a sandwich at Arby’s. He constantly stands in the shadow of his older brother David (Mark Ruffalo), who is also a gold medal winning wrestler. David is a tough act to follow: he is a happily married family man with more talent and charisma than Mark has.

Mark has hit rock bottom and thus he is the perfect target to be taken advantage of by an egomaniac. Enter John du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to the DuPont chemical fortune. John gives Mark an offer he can’t refuse: a lot of money and the chance to lead his wrestling camp at Foxcatcher Farm.

To say that Du Pont was an eccentric man would be the understatement of the century. He had a delusional sense of patriotism and a love for an America that doesn’t exist. If he was still alive today, he would make a great Fox News correspondent. Du Pont had so much time and so much money that he was able to become an accomplished scientist, stamp collector, coach, philanthropist, and gun enthusiast. You’ll never guess which one of these hobbies contributed to his downfall.

Nobody can dispute that Foxcatcher is a beautiful looking film. The stunning cinematography by Greig Fraser captures an imposing sense of Mid-Atlantic seasonal depression. The trio of male leads give commanding performances, with Tatum playing an unpredictable sad sack to Carell’s unpredictable maniac. Meanwhile, Ruffalo’s David feels like the only kind and selfless soul in this world of selfish ambition. Yet, the sadness gets in the way of the film’s ambition.

Sometimes, it feels like Bennett Miller wants to suffocate us with sadness. He did the same thing in Capote, yet this never got in the way of showcasing Truman Capote’s personality. At times, Foxcatcher can feel as overdramatic as Ricky Fitts’ video of that plastic bag floating in the wind in American Beauty. However, there is one scene in Foxcatcher where John takes Mark on a helicopter ride. The two snort cocaine and try to figure out the pronunciation of a certain word. The scene was ad-libbed, and it shows. It is one of the only scenes in the film where it makes sense as to why Mark was drawn to du Pont, and why these two misfits with nepotism issues were perfect for each other. It sort of makes me wish that Miller played the whole film as a dark comedy about excess, Wolf of Wall Street style. The golden rod they use to do blow is symbolic of everything that is wrong with John du Pont’s empire.

Lately, there has been a lot of debate about films that draw on history, mainly with Selma, and what films of this nature are allowed to get right and wrong. I believe you can get as much wrong as you want, just as long as you tell a good story and get to some essential truth. The main issue with Foxcatcher is that it abandons some of the most interesting parts of the story. While we do get a vivid sense of the closed off world that probably led to du Pont’s downfall, his estate served as a museum to his idiosyncrasies, we barely get a sense of his paranoia. Perhaps further exploring his relationship with David would have been a good way to build up at least some tension towards the grand finale. Miller wasn’t looking to make a conventional Hollywood true crime thriller. That is admirable, but there has to be a middle ground between chase scenes and people staring sullenly out windows. Then again, this was the 1980s; cell phones weren’t around yet for people to stare at all the time.

Foxcatcher was a passion project for Bennett Miller, and it shows. It feels like he wanted to remake The Godfather, yet his stance on American capitalism and ambition is too vague. Apparently, a four hour director’s cut of this film exists. I would like to see that. Better yet, this story would have done better as an HBO miniseries. Foxcatcher has some telling moments, but it says a lot when the Wikipedia entry of the story is more interesting than the film that gets made out of it.

Brain Farts From The Edge (SPOILERS FOR REAL LIFE)

  • Some of the more interesting parts of the story that were left out: Du Pont hid in his mansion for two days while police cut the power in order to get him to come outside; du Pont bequeathed 80% of his estate to a Bulgarian wrestler; du Pont was buried in his Team Foxcatcher singlet, as specified in his will. Miller even wanted to include that last part as a closing title credit. Seriously, how hard would that have been to do?
  • Right before I saw Foxcatcher, I read the recent story of a 30-year-old who shot his wealthy father for bewildering reasons. I can see some parallels with du Pont.
  • As great as Carell is here, I do wish he could have incorporated more of his humor and improvisational prowess into his performance. There is a belief that in order for comedic actors to be taken seriously, they have to drop everything that is funny about them. Yet, some of the best examples of comedians going dark (see: Jack Black in Bernie; Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love; Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street) still allowed them to display their comic genius.
  • According to Hollywood, anybody who is a birdwatcher is automatically a huge creep.
  • I liked how they addressed how Mark and John were two men trying to fill big shoes, and that informs most of their decisions. However, in John’s case, I think it was a general sense of insanity caused by isolation, and not just a need to impress his mother. After all, this was a guy who turned a wrestling camp into a cult of personality.
  • David’s death is tragic and devastating, especially given what a good person he was. Even if du Pont’s decision to kill him was completely random, I still feel the film could have done more to build up to this tragic moment. Also, isn’t it a bit strange that we never get to see Mark’s reaction to his brother’s death? Does anyone involved in with the making of this film know anything about coming full circle?
  • The best thing I can say about Foxcatcher is that it inspired me to do my own research on this story. One piece of evidence I found is an old video of du Pont propaganda, which I am posting below. One thing I noticed: David seems to believe that his wrestling technique makes him a good Christian. So I guess John du Pont wasn’t the only delusional person at Foxcatcher Farm.