Film Review: “Foxcatcher” — Sports and the Pathology of the 1%

Of all the cinematic indictments of the 1% that have flooded the multiplex in the wake of the financial crisis, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher stands as one of the most understated.

A scene from "Foxcather"

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in a scene from “Foxcatcher.”

Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller. At Coolidge Corner Theatre and other screens around New England.

By Matt Hanson

Foxcatcher is based on the true story of the multi-millionaire John Eleuthere Du Pont, heir to the Du Pont chemical fortune, and his mid-eighties creation of the titular Foxcatcher, a privately funded Olympic freestyle wrestling team. The stars of the team are Dave and Mark Schultz, accomplished wrestlers who, despite having won Olympic gold, live modest and unassuming lives. The Schultzes have worked hard, but don’t have much to show for it in terms of status, a state of affairs that affects them in different ways.

In the film, the great Mark Ruffalo plays Dave Schultz, the older brother and a devoted family man. He can spar with his younger sibling physically, but he can also offer honest mentorship outside of the gym. Mark Schultz, played with clenched-jaw intensity by Channing Tatum, is the powder keg. Mark is also an accomplished athlete, but that is the extent of his talents. His inner life consists of little more than grim, inarticulate resentment rooted in an expansive alienation aided and abetted by the bitterness of living in his well-adjusted brother’s shadow.

One day, seemingly out of the blue, Mark gets the call of a lifetime. The mysterious Du Pont has summoned him to his family’s sprawling Pennsylvania compound to train his team to win a gold medal in the upcoming 1987 Olympic games. The Du Pont estate is replete with antique furnishings and misty historical resonance. Patriotic allusions to George Washington and American militarism abound, as well as a smug sense of elitism fueled by generations of self-satisfaction.

Mark Schultz, with his hunched, thick shoulders and brawny confusion is physically and socially out of place. Du Pont and his staff never let him forget it. The minute Mark agrees to the offer he is informed that he will not be allowed to leave his designated living quarters, set foot anywhere near the main house, or look directly at Du Pont’s formidable mother. The Schultz brothers’ motivations to take up the unusual deal are easy to understand: it means a ticket out of anonymity and having their bills paid. But what drives Du Pont? As Dave asks, what does he get out of all this?

Steve Carell gives a creepy and effective performance as the menacingly soft-spoken John Du Pont. Sporting a prosthetic nose and gnarled gums, the actor also makes good use of a wispy voice and almost disembodied mannerisms. The actor has been often cast in silly roles in mainstream comedies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Date Night, but his dramatic turn here is masterful. The actor not only conveys the sinister nuances within the passive-aggressive Du Pont, but hints at deeper, more inexplicable neurosis lurking within.

Du Pont initially explains to Mark what Team Foxcatcher is supposed to represent. He pontificates about the values of national pride and competition, the need to show the Russians what America is made of, etc. The Reagan-era triumphalist rhetoric, however, quickly begins to ring hollow. It becomes clear that Du Pont doesn’t believe his own rah-rah explanations, that they are a smokescreen for something else.

As the story unfolds, the reason for Foxcatcher is revealed. Du Pont’s patronage serves as a means of entry into a visceral, masculine world he covets. Foxcatcher becomes an opportunity for the lonely, privileged ornithology buff to hang out with regular guys and bask in their gratitude and admiration. He can pretend to belong, but only for a little while. Du Pont can openly refer to the likes of the Schultz brothers as his protégés and even his friends — as long as he pays their bills. An added bonus is that the wrestling seems vulgar to his elderly mother, formidably played by Vanessa Redgrave. In a short but extremely expressive scene the matriarch’s passive-aggressive domination of her son’s life is made brutally clear.

Du Pont’s obsession with the team’s success also comes off as a convenient excuse for indulging his repressed homoeroticism. Whether he is conscious of it or not, his interest in Mark and the wrestlers he recruits for the team amounts to gaining access to their bodies in a surreptitious way. In one scene, Du Pont visits Mark unannounced in the middle of the night and insists on some spontaneous wrestling practice, just the two of them. He also controls the team’s bodies by proxy, regulating both their diet and exercise routines.

Tatum plays the anguished Mark Schultz as the perfect lure for a manipulator like Du Pont. Schultz is physically powerful but insecure and needs the praise of a surrogate father figure, which Du Pont is perfectly aware of and easily exploits. He is happy to feed Mark’s hungry ego so long as his athletic prowess brings his team success and expands his sense of control. Once Mark falters, the delicate balance of power within Foxcatcher starts to fray.

The rapidly disintegrating Du Pont isn’t satisfied to have a stable of muscular boys as pals. He also wants the public recognition of victory. It isn’t enough for Du Pont to have assembled an excellent team of wrestlers; he also demands constant public flattery from them. He doesn’t just desire the pleasure of ownership, the thrill of wielding power by proxy. The entitled, repressed patron demands fealty at all times. When it is denied him, or he even suspects that it is, the results are devastating.

Of all the cinematic indictments of the 1% that have flooded the multiplex in the wake of the financial crisis, from the bombastic (The Dark Knight Rises) to the disingenuous (Up In The Air), Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher stands as one of the most understated. It relies on atmosphere, silence, and the powerful subtlety of its acting to convey its sharp social/political observations. As a result, the plot’s exploration of psychological breakdown is all the more disturbing. F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the very rich are different from you and me. Foxcatcher suggests some of the ways in which the well-heeled are different. Not only can they more easily afford to maintain their pathologies — they have no problem sticking others with the bill.

Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.


  1. Les Phillips on January 17, 2015 at 1:41 am

    Here, as in CAPOTE, Miller does wonders with landscape. What a lonely beautiful decorous part of the world he shows us. The pacing. The way he lets us decide why things are happening, reserves judgment on the nature of DuPont’s sociopathy. He’s such a good director. “Formidable” is the best adjective you got for the performance gifted to us by the greatest living English-speaking actress? Hmm.

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