Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 14 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Note: the review contains several spoilers in the last portion, so you might want to stop reading halfway through until you can watch the film.
The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
What a Greek tragedy, centered on a sport popularized by the Greeks! Director Bennett Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman delve behind the headlines of the spectacular 1996 murder involving the wealthy heir John du Pont (Steve Carell) and the 1984 Olympic Wrestling God medal winners Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). The two brothers are the only pair who have won both Olympic gold and World Wrestling championships. Although both had extremely impressive victories while in college, Mark feels very much that he is the shadow of his older brother.
The film begins three years after the Olympics when the brothers have gone their separate ways. Mark is eking out an existence by giving inspirational talks at schools—we see him stumbling through a talk before a bored audience of middle schoolers, for which he receives the princely fee of $20. His unkempt walk-up apartment is in the kind of mixed residential/commercial neighborhood where you would expect most of the residents to be on welfare. Dave, on the other hand, is happily married to Nancy (Sienna Miller), father of two children, and coaching a college wrestling team.
Mark is puzzled at first when a representative of du John Pont flies him to the sumptuous family estate located near Valley Forge. Du Pont gives him a patriotic song and dance speech about the US regaining its place in the Olympic world of wresting, shows him his state of the art wresting arena, and offers him a luxurious guest house and generous financial stipend—if he will move to the estate and help coach the team he is assembling. He names his group of wrestlers Foxcatcher Team and the facility Foxcatcher Farm, hence the name of the film. He also wants Dave, but reluctantly settles for Mark when the older brother refuses because he does not want to uproot his family.
John Eleuthère du Pont turns out to be a strange person whose generous sized nose is usually pointed upward and whose speech pattern is offsetting: indeed, when he pauses and stares, downright creepy. He is a collector, showing off to Mark his vast collection of shells, stamps, and stuffed birds (an avid birdwatcher, he tries to interest Mark, giving him a set of binoculars). He also loves guns, to the point of holding up payment on an Army half-track armored vehicle when he discovers that its 50-callibar machine gun has been removed. Mark soon learns that his host regards the wrestlers as another of his collections, ordering them about and insisting that they spend all of their time in training with little time off for personal pastimes.
Still under the thumb of his aged horse-loving mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), John du Pont chaffs at her disapproval of his choice of wrestling as his sport. It is too “low,” she tells him. Thus his fierce determination to create what will amount to the official US Olympic Wrestling team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He keeps after Mark on the subject of inducing brother Dave to join them. It is telling when he asks what would be Dave’s price, and when Mark says that Dave cannot be bought, Du Pont falls silent. There is an expression of puzzlement on his face, an indication of incomprehension. The du Ponts over several generations have become American royalty from their profits in gunpowder and chemicals. As the heir of this vast fortune he has been able to buy anything he wants, including his bid for Olympic fame.
Du Pont badly wants to be involved in the world of wrestling, and not just to observer and promote it. He himself wrestles in a senior division, and even here his wealth proves a determinative factor. Mark notices that after his mentor seems too easily to pin down an opponent, a du Pont flunky slips the defeated man an envelope. In Du Pont’s universe wealth trumps everything. And this includes adding Dave to his collection. We are not told how, but he does manage to entice Dave to move with his family to the estate. Once again Mark passes into the shadow of his older brother, even more so when he himself does not perform as well as expected at the Olympics.
The film is a character study of three men in the macho world of wresting. This is not the world of Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler, the latter set in the commercially driven sport where showmanship is as important as skill. Instead, it is the no punching, by the rules world of real wrestling where first takedowns are scored, as well as actual pins. It is du Pont’s story that dominates, and not just because of its bizarre outcome. Remove Dave and Mark from the story, and it would still be a tragedy of a disturbed man with other issues. One of the saddest scenes takes place when he is watching his wrestlers during a practice, and his mother is wheeled just inside the gym door. He immediately calls a halt, gathers the athletes around and tries to give an inspiring talk to them. It is so inane that his mother soon demands to be wheeled out, leaving him deflated and frustrated.
The explosive ending in 1996 is shown with no attempt at an explanation. Mark had left Foxcatcher, and Dave was in his driveway when du Pont drove up, asked him a question, and then shot several bullets into his body. Nancy is a witness to the tragedy. Although the court will not accept a plea of insanity, he is found guilty of murder. It is clear that the man certainly had passed over the line, frequently brandishing one of his guns in public, one time even firing off an automatic rifle. In an interview Mark suggests that their mentor was extremely jealous of the brothers. They possessed the athletic talent that du Pont lacked, a handicap he sought to overcome by buying his way into the wrestling world. Whatever the reasons, the film and the trio of talented actors conduct us into a bizarre world that is both fascinating and sad to watch. As a parable warning us that vast wealth in itself cannot fulfill us, it will long linger in the memory of viewers—or at least, of this one.
This review, with a set of discussion questions, will be in the Jan. 2014 issue of Visual Parables. Go to the store for information about subscribing.