“Foxcatcher,” the new film directed by Bennett Miller, is based on a true story. David and Mark Schultz really were gold-medal-winning American wrestlers at the 1984 Olympics. John du Pont really was the incredibly wealthy scion of the du Pont fortune, and he really did lure the Schultz brothers and other young wrestlers to his estate, Foxcatcher, to train for the 1988 Olympics. And (spoilers – lots of spoilers – stop reading if you hate spoilers) John DuPont really did end up murdering David.
But why did he end up killing him? What did the crime mean? What’s the story here, as opposed to what’s merely true?
The film, based on Mark’s book about his experiences, appears to make Mark the protagonist – it’s his story. When we first meet Mark, he’s living on the edge of poverty, even though he’s already won a gold medal, eating ramen for dinner and taking $20 speaking gigs at middle schools. He’s an angry, frustrated, impacted man, his rage at the world – and at his brother, who was also effectively his parent after their parents’ divorce – bursting out and then being shoved firmly back in.
His life changes when John du Pont enters the picture, inviting him to his mother’s horse farm, Foxcatcher, where he has built a state-of-the-art training facility for Mark and his fellow Olympic wrestlers. From the beginning, it’s clear that du Pont is a deeply odd duck, and it doesn’t take long for us to learn that he’s potentially quite dangerous – but it’s not at all clear that Mark understands this. He seems genuinely to buy in to the thoroughly unpersuasive line of bull about America and freedom and victory that du Pont is handing out, seems all-too-willing to call du Pont a mentor, even a father.
Channing Tatum, I have to say at this point, does an exceptional job of inhabiting this emotionally weak and pliable young hulk – the best work I’ve ever seen him do. I completely believed that Mark bought into du Pont, and that, once he figured out that du Pont was a problem, and was sucking him into a completely one-sided and destructive relationship rather than actually helping him to win, he couldn’t see how to escape it. The structural problem with the film, though, is that Mark never breaks out of that state of dependency.
Du Pont eventually turns on Mark, and offers David enough money to come up to Foxcatcher to be his de-jure assistant, de-facto head coach. Mark resents this, and acts out – until its clear that he can’t win on his own. Then his brother saves him from himself, and ultimately facilitates his escape from Foxcatcher and from du Pont, leveraging his importance to the operation to get a guaranteed income for Mark even after Mark leaves Foxcatcher and cuts ties with du Pont.
Mark, in other words, never achieves real independence, emotional or financial. He moves from dependence on his brother (the good mentor and father figure) to dependence on du Pont (the bad mentor and father figure) and back to dependence on his brother. And, from the final scene of the film, it looks like once his brother is dead, he descends into the lurid and degraded world of cage fighting – the final betrayal of his Olympian achievement.
I want to be clear: the problem is not that this is a downer. I love a good downer. The problem is that Mark’s failure to achieve independence means that the story doesn’t really have an arc, and that therefore I don’t know what his story means.
Why, after all, does Mark fall for du Pont? I don’t mean why does he take the gig – he desperately needs the money, and while the film could do a better job of making it clear why he’s so poor (to maintain his eligibility for the Olympics under then-extant rules, Mark had to remain an amateur, which meant not getting paid for any athletic activity), his financial need is manifest. But David has similar pecuniary reasons for compromise, and he never falls for du Pont for a second – he’s clear eyed about what he’s doing. Why does Mark fall for him?
One possibility is that Mark is responding to the fact that du Pont clearly has some kind of desire for him. Most of the chatter about the film has focused on du Pont’s sexuality, and the film can be powerfully critiqued for playing into lurid gay stereotypes. But, as Jordan Schildcrout points out, the real problem isn’t that du Pont embodies those stereotypes – maybe the real du Pont was like that – but that he doesn’t have much interiority, that the film doesn’t really let us know what it’s like to be him. But that, in turn, is only a fatal problem if this is du Pont’s movie. And it isn’t. It’s Mark’s. This isn’t “Gods and Monsters” in which the presumably-straight young hulk is just the observer, so we can be seduced by the fascinating older monster along with him. Mark is the point. What does he see in du Pont?
Well, what it looks like to me is that Mark is telling the truth when he says, in words du Pont put in his mouth, that he was looking for a father figure, and he finally found one. Du Pont is a pretty pathetic father figure, but he’s one Mark found on his own, and therefore one that can separate him from his brother. The film gestures toward the possibility that Mark is involved sexually with du Pont, but inasmuch as it gestures that way – having Mark frost the tips of his hair, having him wrestle with du Pont at night in the gym – it also suggests that Mark is humiliated by the relationship. The obvious, surface read for that is a homophobic one – Mark is humiliated that a man has a sexual interest in him. But I think a deeper way to read it is that there’s a kind of quasi-incestuous betrayal playing out in Mark’s mind as he realizes that his new father is a weak and emotionally hungry man who just wants to use him. It really doesn’t matter whether that “use” includes sex or not.
But that understanding makes it all the more imperative that Mark achieve some kind of independence. Instead, Mark is saved by his brother, and drifts out of the movie. Du Pont finally kills David – because David took away his surrogate son and love object, and because David refused to say anything nice about him on the hagiographic video he had produced about himself. David forced him to confront his own manifest impotence, and so he had to be killed. And, reading the ending back into earlier parts of the movie, David’s decision to stay with du Pont reads like a sacrifice of his own life to save his brother.
Now, consider how the film would read if, instead, Mark had killed du Pont. Mark is clearly jealous when his brother arrives. He’s angry at du Pont for saying that the team can’t succeed without David – that Mark’s not good enough. He’s furious at his brother seeing him in the degraded state to which he’s fallen (that’s clearly how he thinks of it). What if, later, when his brother tries to “save” him from the meal ticket that he, Mark, had found for all of them, that only heightened his impotent rage, ultimately leading him to kill du Pont.
That would have been a much more lurid film. It might have played even more problematically in terms of what it was saying about the psycho-sexual overtones of the relationship between Mark and du Pont. But it would have kept Mark at the center. The question would have remained: who is this man, and what will he do? And I think it would have been more narratively satisfying.
That’s not how it happened, of course. But then again, there are a lot of other things in the film that vary from “how it happened.”
For example: Steve Carrell’s du Pont is a fascinating and creepy creation, and totally real – petty, stupid, emotionally stunted, but real. One of my favorite things about his performance is the way in which he reveals du Pont’s human vulnerability at the same moment that he makes it all the more clear how deeply disturbed the character is. The scene on the helicopter, when du Pont takes cocaine and actually smiles as he plays with multi-syllable words; the scene after Mark has given him a haircut, and du Pont thanks him for being such a good friend, unlike his only childhood “friend” who his mother paid to play with him – forgetting, apparently, that exactly the same pecuniary relationship obtains with Mark. Those kinds of scenes.
What he doesn’t seem is obviously psychotic. Which the real du Pont apparently was:
John du Pont was insane. There was no doubt about that, even early on. I only met him a few times—he didn’t regularly attend training sessions—but even casual contact with John left me with an uneasy feeling. He had a bizarre look in his eyes that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Even a chance encounter with John just left you with strange pangs of foreboding.
Stories about John’s strange behavior were legion. He had a bad habit of driving inebriated around the estate and crashing into things. On more than one occasion, he drove the car into a pond. He also regularly carried a handgun with him and once, during his 50th birthday party, he inexplicably starting shooting off an AK-47.
By all accounts, in the months leading up to the shooting John’s behavior became even more bizarre. He kicked three African-American athletes off the farm, saying that Foxcatcher was run by the Ku Klux Klan and confronted one wrestler, Dan Chaid, by pointing an assault rifle at his chest. The warning signs were there, but it was hard for anyone to admit it.
Why was it hard to admit it? Because all the wrestlers needed that meal ticket. There’s a story there to tell, a lurid parable of America in the 1980s, in which du Pont’s wealth lures the wrestling world up to his farm, where he prances about like a mad hatter with an AK-47 and everybody looks away because they need the money. And, again, “Foxcatcher” gestures toward that film – but the tone of that film is incompatible with the tone of the story of Mark and du Pont’s emotionally stunted folie à deux.
To see what I mean, consider the difference in tone between “Foxcatcher” and what is probably the emblematic 1980s movie about money. Like Mark, the Charlie Sheen character Bud Fox in “Wall Street,” – which came out in 1987, the year in which “Foxcatcher” is set – is torn between two mentors and father figures: the good one (Fox’s actual father, a union leader at an airline), and the bad one (Gordon Gekko). But there the comparisons end. Gekko stands for something; he’s an attractive anti-heroic figure. Fox is a young man of promise. We’re seduced along with him – because Gekko is the true spirit of the age. Du Pont, by contrast, is repellent from the moment we meet him. There is nothing – nothing – attractive about this man. He’s obviously weak, creepy, stupid and dangerous.
If we read the film is a kind of parable of the malign 1%, with Mark as America, then it’s a pretty damning comment on America that we were ever seduced by the Reaganite myth. I mean, who but an emotionally weak and vulnerable idiot would ever be genuinely seduced by the likes of John du Pont? On that level, I “get” the movie, but it feels weirdly displaced in time – a parable of the Great Recession pasted onto the era of “greed is good.”
By contrast, consider how the film would play out if David were the main character. Mark Ruffalo plays David as a conscientious and fundamentally giving person, without ever making him seem like a goody-goody or somebody without guts in his belly. He’s both a good man and a real man. It makes sense that Mark could get sucked into du Pont’s orbit, and couldn’t figure out how to escape. What does it mean that David was willing, for the right price, to take his place?
Now we’ve got a story to tell – a story in which David thinks he’s protecting his brother, thinks he’s promoting the sport of wrestling, thinks he’s doing all the right things. Du Pont can be a monster – he can even be the creepy monster of this film, and not somebody seductive at all. Maybe that very manifest weakness and stupidity is why David, representing the best of America, thinks he can handle the monster of gruesome wealth, accept its suzerainty for the sake of the good it can do. And then the monster kills him.
But that’s David’s story. Not Mark’s.
This has been a difficult write-up for me, because I really like stories in which each character has weight, in which we can even be confused about who exactly is the protagonist. One of the scripts I wrote, the one I’m probably most attached to, works that way a bit – though there is a main character, I try to give you the perspective of each of the major characters, see the whole film from the inside as each of them would. Many of Chekhov’s plays are like that – is there really a single protagonist of The Cherry Orchard or The Three Sisters or Uncle Vanya? I don’t think so.
I’m just not sure this is that kind of story. There’s a powerful story hidden in this film, about fatherlessness and emotional dependence, about the corruptions of wealth – particularly hereditary wealth – and the impossible demands of American masculinity. And Tatum, Carrell and Ruffalo all give gripping and nuanced performances – plenty strong enough to keep me in the film. I’m unequivocally glad I saw it – would be happy to see it again.
I just worry that the truth got in the way of the story.