THE BRILLIANT FOXCATCHER is, among other things, a disturbing and compelling portrait of a sad, lonely and delusional man, whose limitless wealth is a surrogate for talent and personal success. In what must be seen as Steve Carell’s defining performance, his John E DuPont is a man for whom everyone and everything are just trophies to be possessed (and never earned). He is the pathetic dead end of a dynasty, one that stretches back to Valley Forge. Director Bennett Miller (“Moneyball” and “Capote”) makes a point of repeatedly showing us the DuPont ancestral portraits. These are the industrial pioneers whose vision, talent and ambition built an empire (the DuPont Chemical Company was founded in 1802) out of the manufacture of gunpowder. In John, all that is left is a wealthy empty shell, mumbling platitudes about patriotism and armed with a gun.
This is a long way from Valley Forge.
The movie is based on the true story of John DuPont’s patronage of the 1984/8 US Olympic Wrestling Team, which, it is suggested, was no more than a failed attempt to pretend at leadership and win the praises of a cold and contemptuous mother (an imperious Vanessa Redgrave). His outreach into the world of wrestling begins with his courtship of gold medalist Mark Schultz, a man as lost and empty as him, but who has at least achieved something. Channing Tatum’s Mark is brilliant in an equally career defining role. He is the super masculine menial (muscled, taciturn and Neanderthal) to Carell’s omnipotent administrator (to steal Eldridge Cleaver’s archetypes). To DuPont’s wealth-corrupted brain, ownership (of the person, the team) is a proxy for personal achievement. This is the end point of power and influence where anything can be bought.
And so, these two – the rich man and the poor, twinned in their inabilities to interact with others- engage in a mutually corrupting symbiotic relationship. Both need to escape suffocating relationships in order to define their identities: John from his mother, Mark from his brother David (the always watchable Mark Ruffalo as the sensible leader John can never become); Mark needs a mentor/ farther figure as much as John needs the unquestioning adulation and cachet of a son. John also needs to surpass his mother’s success with thoroughbreds (“Foxcatcher” is the name of their stud farm), and so, ever resentful, he grooms his own thoroughbred- Mark.
Upon this rocky ground they build a fragile master/servant relationship, one that can only exist once the super masculine menial (like all DuPont’s staff) knows his place and can continue to deliver on his primary role – of burnishing the reputation of his owner. Once these thoroughbreds- Mark and, ultimately, Dave- have the temerity to assert any sort of individuality or identity beyond that of DuPont trophies, the threat to (John’s) authority becomes too great.
And in this way, the action unfolds slowly, inexorably as it builds toward its denouement of sudden remorseless violence.
Carrell is mesmerizing. He speaks with the kind of slow deliberation as if every conversation were a scripted PR text: words that sound right but that lack substance or meaning. With his eagle like nose held high, as if breathing the same air as his subordinates is below him, he walks with clumsy, awkward strides. This is a man who has lost any trace of joy or pleasure, but for the brief flickers of homoerotic longing he seems to harbor for Mark. But really, Miller seems to be suggesting, there’s nothing about him that merits either respect or praise. His social standing is not the result of achievement or moral stature, but simply the result of money, to which everyone – the police, the army – genuflects. And John is acutely aware of this; he uses it to his advantage even as it drags him down further and further.
There is a bigger story beyond the sickening and unbalanced relationship between DuPont and the Schultz brothers, for DuPont represents the kind of patrician contempt for others that no amount of patriotic jingoism can breach. The images with which the movie begins – “Washington crossing the Delaware”, and John lecturing Mark on patriotism as they look out onto the foggy fields of Valley Forge – harkens back to an idea of America when all Americans strove shoulder to shoulder to achieve greatness; when patriotism had meaning for all. This is in stark contrast to the America of “Foxcatcher” where money and power are equated with ownership and where all we are left with is a rich/poor divide that is unbridgeable and potentially explosive. The fierce nation-defining battles at Valley Forge have come down to this: two men wrestling on a mat with a bloodless, borderline deranged captain of industry trying to inject patriotic significance into their grapples.
And armed with a gun.
Foxcatcher. Dir: Bennett Miller. Writers: E. Max Frye (“Band of Brothers”) and Dan Futterman (“Capote”). Starring: Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller