Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist, murderer
On December 31, 2014, Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler and memoirist Mark Schultz took to Twitter (@MarkSchultzy) in order to express an ugly rant against director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) and the depiction of Schultz in the filmmaker’s most recent film, Foxcatcher, which is based on the wrestler’s memoir of the same title. Schultz’s memoir accounts his unusual relationship with multi-millionaire John du Pont and the events leading up to the January 1996 murder on du Pont’s estate. Schultz articulated his argument later via social media, but those who had already seen star Channing Tatum (Magic Mike, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) on screen as the troubled wrestler were able to draw their own conclusion. Outside of this minor episode, Miller largely received praise for his work on the film, even winning the Best Director award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. The filmmaker has worked himself into a trend of narrative-centered biopics after following Truman Capote in Capote, Billy Beane in Moneyball, and now Schultz & John E. du Pont in Foxcatcher. Powerhouse performances, skillful cinematography, and a haunting score lead up to an ending that unfortunately doesn’t feel altogether earned despite basing itself on real life.
Tatum’s lead role as Mark Schultz certainly rises to the top of his cinematic portrayals, graduating from blockbuster star to legitimate Oscar contender. While he never quite steals every scene like co-star Steve Carell, it’s easy to root for Tatum’s protagonist. The film begins with Schultz accepting a $20 check from an elementary school after delivering a speech to a less-than-excited crowd. He heads to a fast food joint and eats in his vehicle before going to the gym. Things have hit a rough patch for the main character since winning an Olympic gold medal and he could use a break. Enter the wealthy, philanthropic, and delusional wrestling enthusiast John Eleuthère du Pont of the du Pont family to solve Schultz’s problems. From here on out, it’s a world of the multi-millionaire’s psychological games for Mark as John aims to recruit the wrestler’s older brother, Dave, to join their wrestling team, Foxcatcher, he has formed on the du Pont family estate. Tatum’s revelatory performance as an angry, used, and frustrated athlete certainly seems like a character ready to blow up on Twitter—which doesn’t complement Schultz’s statements well.
Steve Carell (“The Office,” Despicable Me 2) plays John du Pont with a creepy, chilling quality. Carell’s du Pont always keeps the audience nervous, displaying quick surges of rage and violence. Audiences have seen the comedic actor take dramatic roles before, such as the actor’s appearances in Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back, but his performance in Foxcatcher easily tops the list. Carell introduces his bizarre doctrine of “Foxcatcher” to Mark in their first scene together. John lures Mark back to train and live at Pennsylvania’s Foxcatcher Farms with the promise of wealth, hard work, and Olympic gold—but John makes it abundantly clear that they also will need Mark’s older brother, Dave, if Mark is to earn John’s approval. Carell torments Tatum throughout, keeping him financially and emotionally dependant. Yes, director Miller hints at a vague sexual relationship between Mark and John, but the film never explores this theme beyond a two-second hint. Michael Keaton may win the Oscar this year, but Carell will give him a run for the award with his haunting performance in Foxcatcher. Carell keeps viewers interested by playing du Pont’s motives close to the chest. It isn’t until a crucial scene between John and his mother where all of his “Foxcatcher” motivation becomes all-too-clear.
Finally, Academy Award nominee Mark Ruffalo (The Kids are All Right, The Avengers) rounds out the “big three” in Foxcatcher’s cast as the late Dave Schultz. Although Tatum’s Mark gives the movie an emotional center, Ruffalo’s Dave gives it a sense of family and tethers the characters to the real world. Dave is the only character with both feet planted firmly on the ground with a realistic sense of how the world works. Mark runs away to hide at Foxcatcher and train with the delusional du Pont. While Mark desperately cares about how the world views him and John thinks that money will solve all of his ambitions, Dave just keeps grinding it out in the gym. Dave has a wife (Sienna Miller- G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, American Sniper), and two children—something John and Mark lack in the film. It may not be a leading role, but Ruffalo’s calm, loving, Olympian family man should earn the actor a supporting nod come Oscar nomination day.
While the “big three” in Foxcatcher are all male roles, there'e certainly a place for women. Even though the story largely focuses on the Olympic Men’s wrestling team, John du Pont’s motivation for hosting and sponsoring the team feels like the film’s mystery for a while. It isn’t until a crucial scene with Vanessa Redgrave (Julia, Atonement) as John’s mother, Jean du Pont, where all the viewers’ questions surrounding John are answered. Redgrave barely appears in the film, but may find herself with a not-so-surprising Supporting Actress Oscar nomination come the end of the month. Redgrave plays an old, privileged, reclusive widow who lives with her son, John, on the enormous du Pont family estate. It’s interesting how a male-centric film has such a small, but ultimately pivotal female role that drives one character into a descent of madness. Jean’s affect on John has adverse effects on the Schultz brothers. Miller appears to shift at least some of the blame to the dominating, condescending character played by Redgrave.
Anyone familiar with the true story will understand Dave’s involvement to the plot. For the majority of the film, John pesters Mark about getting Dave out to Foxcatcher Farms in order to completely realize his vision for the United States National Wrestling team. The Hedda Gabler rule of displaying a focal gun comes into play early on and Miller establishes du Pont’s preoccupation with firearms enough to make the ending feel earned, although it never quite gets there because the majority of the film focuses on Mark and John—not Dave and John. Carell does a flawless job of portraying a cold-blooded, psychotic gunman, but there just isn’t enough leading up to the incident itself (which happens all-too-quickly before the camera eagerly jumps back to tie up Mark’s narrative) to give the film more purpose. Foxcatcher primarily plays out with a plot centered on the relationship between Mark and John that has Dave’s murder for an ending. Watching the film, one almost expects John to pursue Mark with a weapon as the millionaire torments the wrestler and displays violent fits of anger toward him. Du Pont even calls Mark an “ungrateful ape” after failing to lock Dave down for Foxcatcher Farms.
Despite a Twitter eruption from one of the men on whom the filmis based and an ending that isn’t exactly earned by the parameters of the script despite its real life inspiration, Foxcatcher will play heavily this awards season with three 2015 Golden Globe nominations in the bag for the film. Tatum, Carell, and Ruffalo have created three distinct characters to populate a film filled with dynamic, revealing performances. Unlike most biopics, Miller’s Foxcatcher doesn’t come with inspiration, but rather builds to a violent, tragic climax by showing the deteriorating psychology of one of America’s wealthiest men. Moneyball this is not.