Skip to main content

Foxcatcher


After a less than rousing speaking engagement at a local elementary school, Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz returns to his compact car and heads home, first stopping at a fast food restaurant, one of whose greasy offerings we seem him greedily scarf.  Home is a second floor apartment in one those mock Tudor apartment buildings whose fooling nobody pretense of exposed timbers against whitewashed walls herald the flimsy construction and dreary rooms to be found within.  Mark Schultz occupies one such ill-lit dwelling, a wall of which is dominated by a shelving unit devoted to the wrestler's many ribbons, medals and trophies.  The most prized, of course, being that Olympic gold that he returns to a central place of honor in its box, almost petting the memento as if to apologize for the affront it faced at school.  

Despite his lofty position in the sport of wrestling, Mark Schultz's life could hardly involve less fanfare, less luxury, as seen early on in Foxcatcher.  It seems a threadbare student's life that the 27-year-old is living, consistent with which is his evening meal of ramen noodles that he attempts to enliven with hot sauce.  Director Bennett Miller gives us several such peeks into the relative squalor of Schultz's life,  as if to make more stark the contrast to come.  Aside from his poor man's trophy case, there's little decoration to be found on those thin walls, aside from a crude rendering of Washington Crossing the Delaware.  It seems like something that might have been left by a former tenant, or somehow come with the apartment, like the building's exterior, another faint evocation of grandeur that was probably not so grand in the first place.  This Mark Schultz, after all, does not seem like much of a decorator.  And yet, this is also man who began his speech to the indifferent if not bewildered young audience by saying, "My name is Mark Schultz, and I want to talk about America."  

Schultz is very much an aggrieved child moving about awkwardly in his strong man's body.  As much as he does with the wrestler's often uncertain and laconic utterances, Chaning Tatum expresses this character largely as a feat of body language, bowed with self-doubt and yet bristling with complaint at slights real and imagined.  Tatum's strong features seem condensed on the face of his battering ram of a head, eyes in semi-permanent squint and jaw defiantly thrust.  All this forming a stern mask, a bravado about as sturdy as those apartment walls.  It's a face on which Schultz sometimes expresses his loathing, as he does relatively early in Foxcatcher, staring into a mirror with disgust and pounding his right cheek with the rigid tips of his fingers until the skin is red.   


Much of what there is to say about Mark Schultz, or at least this film version of the man, is eloquently demonstrated by Tatum and director Bennett Miller in an early scene almost free of dialog.  Mark Schultz arrives in the wrestling room of Wexler University to work out with the agreeable, bearded man who seems to be in charge.  Only later do we find out that this is Marks's older brother (and fellow gold medalist), David.  This relationship is an arena for most all of the younger brother's conflicted emotions.  There is the desperate need for love and approval which practically renders the two father and child (their parents were divorced when Mark was but two).  At the same time time, there is the younger brother chafing at the authority and perceived shadow of his always first on the scene sibling.  As Dave begins to Mark work out, first shaking his muscled arms, there is something almost homoerotic as the warm-up movements play out, particularly as each man in turn slips around the other and applies the embrace of a bear hug from behind.  Of course, for these two men, there's nothing erotic in these rituals, but it does seem to offer Mark Schultz, this particular man, a safe place and time where he can gain some attention, find some warmth in physical contact.  Eventually, as the two begin to wrestle in earnest, the physical contact turns hostile, as Mark eventually head butts Dave, drawing blood. 

Dave Schultz does not respond to the aggression of his brother in kind.  He calmly wipes the blood from his nose on to the white t-shirt beneath his black singlet, looks soberly at Mark, and they continue.  Among the largely unspoken but prominent themes in Foxcatcher is a consideration of masculinity.  The Schultz brothers occupy nearly opposite ends of a continuum (With the introduction of John du Pont, another manchild, there is a pyramid of sorts).

Mark Ruffalo mutes both his physical appeal and charisma to play the elder Schultz, the sort of man who's settled from within to the point that he can tend to those around him, someone of almost unassailable equanimity.  This a further reminder of Mr. Ruffalo's abilities.  He's certainly created characters on a kind of low simmer before, as with his memorable work in You Can Count on Me (2000).  But playing the fuckup brother to Laura Linney in that film, the shade in which he moved was all self-abnegating darkness.  As Dave Schultz, Ruffalo assuredly portrays a man whose ego resides in comfortable eclipse.

At his own extreme of manhood, Channing Tatum does indeed stalk around like a wounded child.  When he accepts the physical embrace or approval he so craves (as from his brother, and later, du Pont), Tatum's Mark Schultz does so with head lowered, a little boy who craves that unconditional expression of love, but can't meet the eyes of these surrogate fathers, lest he find out that he's as unworthy as he feels.  Channing Tatum may slightly overplay this tortured body language at times, but all his actions would seem to emanate from a sense character with which he is nearly possessed.  

  Mark Schultz's life changes dramatically when he is summoned to the Pennsylvania estate of the du Pont family, there to meet its scion, John Eleuthere du Pont - ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast.   Quite a mouthful that, as Mark Schultz will find out when his patron later drills him like a bizarre update of Eliza Doolittle so his protege can repeat the description as part of a public introduction.  The wrestler had not heard of John du Pont nor his extremely privileged family prior to his initial visit.  No matter, he's given a videotape about the "du Pont Dynasty," as part of his move-in package when he gladly accepts John's offer to take up residence on the estate and lead his Foxcatcher wrestling team.

In a film full of memorable scenes, the first meeting of these two men, apparently so different, is a standout.  Tatum first enters as the young athlete radically out of his element.  This is one of several such indicating mini-scenes, as when the wrestler later takes up residence at "The Chalet" on the du Pont estate.  We see him place a lone possession amidst the space and luxury of the room, the plugging in of his humble toaster like the tossing of a child's flotation device into an ocean of private wealth.

Ill at ease on a very plaid sofa, Mark Schultz is joined by his eventual patron and (later) nemesis, the aforementioned John du Pont.  This a transformed Steve Carell.  Mr. Carell's almost unrecognizable appearance is partially a matter of a prosthetic nose and complexion-altering makeup, the preparation of which apparently required two hours per day, getting the actor in character well before his colleagues arrived on set.  More profoundly, there is the actor behind that skin which looks to have been burned on, behind that prow of a nose.

Even fairly genial at the first meeting in which he queries young Schultz and strokes his ego ("...and I'm talking to the great Mark Schultz), Carell's du Pont, head tilted back, seems to address his eventual protege from a far greater distance than the few feet between them.  Du Pont regards Mark Schultz (and most everything else) dimly, as through an enveloping cataract, developed over years by privilege and remove from common care, behind which weaknesses of personality, perhaps even pathology have been allowed to fester.

Like many an ostensible funny person with whom a darkness appears to lurk behind the easy laugh, Steve Carell has done some of his best acting in serious roles.  As John du Pont, in the first scene with Channing Tatum and throughout Foxcatcher, Carell's performance is something of a revelation. After Mark Schultz shares a painful anecdote about his upbringing to empathize with du Pont's admission that his only childhood friend was one his mother paid to play the role, the older man laughs and regards the eager attendant through his personal fog with an admixture of affection, contempt and heaven know's what else, so abstruse are his motivations.  There is more interesting acting in that laugh by Carell, in that haughty if slightly bewildered glance, than in many a complete film performance.

 An early period of amity unfolds between Mark Schultz and du Pont - if not of honeymoon, at least an adoption that might take.  This culminates with the wrestler winning a world championship, Schultz running off the mat for one those embraces with du Pont, head down and muscular arms up.  After their return to America there is a photo shoot with wrestler and nominal coach, Schultz in his revealing singlet oiled up, du Pont eventually in the foreground, proprietary in his Foxcatcher sweatshirt.

As Schultz is drawn more deeply into du Pont's orbit, he undergoes a kind of degradation.  Aboard du Pont's personal jet, Schultz takes cocaine at the other's behest.  Before long, we see him lolling at the estate, the fuzz of longer and frosted hair as much of a telling deviation from his normal buzz cut as the empty beer bottles about him indicate a lapse in his typical athlete's discipline.  It is at this point that Mark Schultz exists somewhere between kept boy and pet for du Pont, much as the wrestler is still eager to please.

The downward spiral on the part of Schultz might occur abruptly in the script of Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, but Mark Schultz the character would hardly be the first person to go quickly to seed when strengthening adversity gives way to cajoling plenty.  Just after we see Schultz so changed in appearance and habits, he is summoned to a late night wrestling session with du Pont in "the gallery," portraits of stern ancestors (presumably) observing the young man ostensibly pinned beneath this latest du Pont, the former's expression like someone submitting to unwanted sex.  Then straight to a scene in which Schultz is cutting the hair of his would-be friend and father figure, clad only in shorts.  After taking some cocaine, he sits before du Pont like a pet.  The contrast in the two mens' state of dress and relative power echoes an earlier scene in which director Bennett Miller places his camera at chest level on Tatum, Schultz getting out of bed to answer the knock of du Pont, the wrestler nearly naked and his patron adorned in formal evening wear.


The real Mark Schultz has understandably and vociferously objected to the depiction of the relationship between the two men and how far it might stray from actuality (much as the tenor of some his outbursts on Twitter would seem to indicate the the essence of the characterization might hit a little too close to home for comfort), but in this work of fiction merely based on real events, writers Futterman and Frye seem concerned, as with issues of masculinity and patriotism, with a larger consideration of degradation.  Not simply the wrestler's loss of self in the pursuit of wealth, glory and approval, but the degrading effect of the privilege and the pursuit of such wealth that the character of Mark Schultz, like most Americans, finds so alluring.

The du Ponts might be "the wealthiest family in America," as that videotape given to Mark Schultz exclaims at its conclusion to an accompaniment fireworks, but there's little enviable in the people themselves, stripped from the trappings of that wealth.  Their detachment from the material reality of most people has left them stunted, curdled human beings, the son pining for the mother's love, the mother, Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), disapproving of her son and his affinity for the "low" sport of wrestling, saving what scant bit of affection she has for her beloved horses, beautiful animals we see her regard joyously.

Foxcatcher would also seem to ruminate on the degradation of sport itself.  Wrestling and wrestlers become yet more - like a tank he purchases directly from the army - acquisitions for du Pont toward some idea of manhood, or merely to fill his days.  He takes to the mats himself, prevailing in masters wrestling competition after which we see his assistant pay off the opponent willing to throw the match.  There is also a brief scene in which Mark Schultz and his fellow Foxcatcher teammates watch a televised MMA bout and debate the virtue of the former wrestler pursuing glory in that arena.  Foxcatcher ends with Mark Schultz entering an MMA octagon himself after his retirement from wrestling.  

Foxcatcher, among its many virtues, is a reminder of what wonderfully collaborative thing film can be, not merely the playground of auteurs.  It hardly seems fair to say this film is by director Bennett Miller, any more than it is by actors Channing Tatum or Steve Carrell, or writers Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye.  The film truly is by them all, as it is the product of ace cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly, Bright Star).  Like his director, Mr. Fraser does not make flashy gestures for effect.  However, in several scenes his skill manifests itself in full relief.  This is particularly the case in exterior shots in which Fraser makes full use of the spectral light of fogged countrysides.  So begins one of the most striking interludes in Foxcatcher, when a distraught John du Pont stalks into the horse barn after the death of his mother and releases the animals.  As he drives the horses out the broad opening of the barn, Carell is shot from behind, silhouetted against the gently-lit paddock and animals beyond him, a haunting, eloquent image of a man lost.  Not a word necessary.  As du Pont moves dumbly forward, his silhouette briefly takes on the surreal look of a figure about to assail a movie screen on which those horses are projected.    


Foxcatcher is based in its bold particulars on true events. Mark and later Dave Schultz had a fateful association with John du Pont, reaching its nadir in 1996, when the the heir to the elite family pulled up in his Lincoln Town Car and fired three shots into the elder Schultz (who had long been living on the estate), killing him some seven years after the departure of the younger brother. 

Like any effective allegory, Foxcatcher works perfectly well on its surface, the Schultz's perhaps the prey in this particular fox hunt, a perverse update on that pointless and destructive exercise of privilege. Bennett Miller opens the film with images of fox hunts and munitions, one a traditional past time of families such as the du Ponts, the other the means by which they made their fortune. Take Foxcatcher as a simple story of victims and villain and its 130 minutes will give you far more substance than you'll usually find at the movie theater these days.  However, director Bennett Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman would seem to have something far more deeply resonant in mind with Foxcatcher than a ripped from the headlines story brought to the screen.  


 
The apparent dichotomy of Mark Schultz and John du Pont is not nearly so clear after the events of the film play out.  These men so very different in their physical being and standing in the world are like two children raised on opposite sides of town.  As Mark Schultz tries in vain to talk to that uninterested elementary school audience about America, so does John du Pont fly in his private jet to Washington D.C., there to dispense platitudes to an assembled Washington D.C. elite, whose attention, if not interest, has no doubt been purchased in advance.  The brief moment Bennett Miller has the camera rest upon the starving artist version of Washington Crossing the Delaware in the dreary apartment of Mark Schultz is every bit as significant as the shot of du Pont attempting soulfulness at Valley Forge, apparently a short distance from his home.  When troubled, both men tend to default to that defiant thrust of the jaw, a common little boy's gesture.

Which is not to equate self loathing with murder.  Quirks of personality may have ultimately run to pathology with Du Pont.  The Mark Schultz portrayed in Foxcatcher turns his anger inward, as with the furious pecking at the face, or the hotel room meltdown when he slams his considerable head into a mirror.  John du Pont ultimately addresses his void by lashing out and taking another life, no doubt spurred blindly by his massive sense of entitlement in addition to whatever else that drove him.  

Foxcatcher ends with Mark Schultz, shaved of head, entering an MMA ring to chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"  As this occurs Rob Simonsen's score with its sweet, melodic line of piano and warming strings would seem to indicate a homecoming, reconciliation.  But the soothing music is as dissembling as any simple juxtaposition of the film's principal characters.  The chants that greet Mark Schultz at film's end find no more substance in the indifferent air than the "JOHN! JOHN! JOHN!" that earlier rang out ironically when John du Pont indulged in a bit of horseplay with his Foxcatcher team, those grabbed by their rich patron for a wrestling match on the floor smart enough to let him win.

The world is full of little boys moving about in the bodies of men, some quite harmless, others lethal.  Perhaps nationalism and its attendant myths runs to its own pathology. The need of such men in lofty places to dominate, to keep their insecurities, their most fundamental fears at bay.  All of these ideas that may or may not have been consciously expressed by director Bennett Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, realized so well by the acting of Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in the collaborative whole which is Foxcatcher.  But theirs is a work rich and stout enough to bear the weight of such projections.


db





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Most Violent Year

The camelhair coat worn by Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) shines as brilliantly as anything seen in J.C. Chador's A Most Violent Year.  The coat is merely the golden tan of most such garments.  The New York of A Most Violent Year - interior and exterior - pales by comparison.  It's 1981, and a most violent year indeed in and around the great metropolis.  Almost none of  filth of Abel's world - the fuel oil of his business, the frowning elements, dirt kicked up by a vehicle chase - seem to adhere to the impeccable coat.  But as he tries to make a major expansion of his business while attempting to fend off the grip and violence of gangsterism one one side and encroaching law enforcment on the other, the poised, well dressed man is sorely pressed to keep himself clean in the most profound of respects.

A Most Violent Year is a sprawling American story told revealing small.  The canvas is certainly large, even if spread with muted color.  Much of the action of the film takes place…

The Babadook

"I'll soon take off my funny disguise....And once you see what's underneath...you're going to wish you were dead!"  And hello to you, too!  The rather dire warning comes from "Mr. Babadook" through the agency of a very persistent children's book that bears name of the monster.  Thus, The Babadook, writer and director Jennifer Kent's creepy and assured feature film debut.  Is the Babadook real? Merely a projection, a top-hatted fiend from a children's book that sets off a couple of already febrile minds?  Or perhaps...we have seen the monster and it is us?   
Ms. Kent demonstrates a very sure hand and supple knowledge of film history, the latter manifesting itself in  the action of The Babadook, the film's set design and a particular channel to which the television of Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis) seems permanently tuned, showing everything from the fantastical early cinema of George Melies to the more colorful exploits of Italian horror …

The King's Speech

“The family has been reduced to the lowest of creatures – we’ve become actors.”  A sad state of affairs indeed, as pronounced by the King of England, George V (Michael Gambon), to his son, Albert (Colin Firth).   The realization proves troubling in more ways than one to the stammering Duke of York .    
The advent of "the wireless," as radio was so quaintly known, meant that it was no longer enough for a monarch or his family to simply look the part and occasionally vouchsafe one of those swively, restrained wave to the masses.   A king or queen would have to speak, ingratiate him or herself to their subjects in their homes, their pubs, their places of work.  This meant that the Duke of York, paralyzed by that stammer since childhood, would be forced into the acting, the theater of public life.    Even worse, the relative safety on which he was counting, playing understudy to his brother, David (as ever, members of the royal family were as weighed down with as much nomenclatu…