Foxcatcher is a profoundly perplexing film. For more than two hours it hints at a profound conclusion but by the end seems to settle for little more than, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’
As a production Foxcatcher was always going to catch the eye of critics and viewers. The film is based on a bizarre twist in American history that saw John du Pont, the world’s richest industrialist, became responsible for coaching the United States’ 1988 Olympic wrestling team on his private estate in Pennsylvania. Leading up to this was a strained and at times obsessive relationship between du Pont (Steve Carell) and two of America’s greatest wrestlers, Olympic gold winners Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). The film paces slowly towards disaster aided by the career-high performances from Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo. Its inventive combination of true-crime, talent and tension provide the building blocks for a masterpiece – so where does it go wrong?
Generally speaking films divide themselves into three types of story: the quest, the chess game and the life lesson. Foxcatcher aims squarely at the latter, providing a condensed and occasionally modified history that highlights the power of wealthy men to shape the lives of those less fortunate. Mark Schultz is presented as the simpler, struggling brother who simultaneously loves his older sibling but can’t bear to live in his shadow. He has an inferiority complex that results in fits of rage and self-harm. To him, John du Pont represents the support and significance he’s always longed for. “It’s a problem for society – when we fail to honor that which should be honored that’s a failure. A canary in a coal mine,” du Pont tells him. “I want you to win. That’s why you’re here.”
David Schultz, by comparison, is the content family man who deeply loves his brother and understands his yearnings. He holds out on du Pont’s offers of employment until they align with his family’s needs and the opportunity to help Mark’s Olympic hopes. But du Pont can’t own David the way he does Mark, and the swirling tension between them slowly drags all three to a murderous conclusion.
By the end du Pont’s eccentricities have given way to the insanity that lurked beneath and the audience is left to ponder what they have learned. But director Bennett Miller doesn’t seem to have much more to say than, ‘All that glitters is not gold.’ Sitting in the dark we’re brought face to face with the problem – money doesn’t make a man great, nor can it buy happiness – and Foxcatcher finishes on a rather hollow note. What it lacks is any hint of an option.
Foxcatcher doesn’t really examine the notion of success, just the people who you might want to avoid meeting or becoming on your way there. The choices that shaped John du Pont’s character remains as much a mystery as they did at the beginning of the film. Likewise we only get the bare bones of an alternative life in the form of David Schultz’s contented family life. The film ends up being as philosophically silent as it is visually somber. Which means you will have to turn elsewhere to get the lesson from this ‘life lesson’ plot. Take the book of Ecclesiastes for example:
“What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest… To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.”
Foxcatcher does well challenging the striving nature that seeks to gain pleasure or purpose for itself, but stops short of letting us know where these things might actually be found.
Release Date: January 29