General Patton's Address in Patton (1970)
"Men, all this stuff you've heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans, traditionally, love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooters, the fastest runners, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans."
Bennett Miller's film Foxcatcher retells the tragic story of millionaire eccentric John du Pont's relationship with a pair of wrestlers, the brothers Mark and Dave Schultz.
A Film About America
The best film of 2014 (in my opinion) without a doubt, is Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher. Scary, ambiguous, intimate, ironic, and darkly funny, Foxcatcher is a film analysts dream. I knew back in November, when I first saw the film, that it was special, however, when I saw it again a few days ago, I was ecstatic. This proves that Bennett Miller is the real deal. Foxcatcher marries the macabre world of Capote with the sports content of Moneyball.
What's apparent when approaching Foxcatcher from an analysis standpoint is the film's ambiguous storytelling. This is a film you'll have to see a few times in order to fully understand what director Bennett Miller, and his screenwriters E. Max Frye, and Dan Futterman are going for. Foxcatcher is one of those films that sticks in your mind for a very long time. It's a rather uncomfortable viewing experience, that certainly isn't for everyone, but I've found it to be the most rewarding movie experience of 2014.
The themes of Foxcatcher can be broken down both aesthetically and psychologically. Not everything going on is immediately recognizable, but beneath the surface, Foxcatcher is simmering with tension and character psychoanalysis.
Foxcatcher is a dark portrait of old money and patriotism seizing a widely respected sport. It's about the backfire of American Exceptionalism, as outlined by the speech in Patton above. "The very thought of losing, is hateful to America." That can do American spirit; individuality, hard work, capitalism, and patriotism, being the best ways to go about life. The film's story is literally Reagan's trickle down economics.
However, as Foxcatcher tells us, capitalism without integrity mixed with machismo leads to chaos.
America and Mythology
In order to understand the underlying themes in Foxcatcher, one must understand America itself. The idea of American Exceptionalism is present throughout the film. The definition of Exceptionalism is the perception that a country, society, institution, movement, or time period is "exceptional" (i.e., unusual or extraordinary) in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules or general principles.
This theme plays out through two central characters in the film. John Eleuthère du Pont, played in a career defining performance by actor Steve Carell, and Channing Tatum's excellent turn as Mark Schultz. America itself, can be seen as a character in the film as well.
When Foxcatcher opens, we see Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz speaking at an elementary school (for a paltry $20) in place of his brother, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who is also an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler. Despite his achievements, Mark lives in relative squalor, and is overshadowed by his older brother. The scenes early on in the film take it's time and establish the tone Miller is going for. We spend some private moments with Mark, i.e. when he's alone, which is most of the time.
Tatum's rather unsophisticated Mark at one point during his speech, simply holds out his Olympic medal around his neck to the bewilderment of the elementary school students. He emphasizes country over individual achievement, and while Mark has given everything to his sport and to his country, he is little recognized. Even when someone does recognize Mark, Dave's shadow is always present.
Philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast (among other things) John du Pont contacts Mark and arranges for him to fly to his lavish and expansive estate and training facility in Pennsylvania. The meeting with du Pont (video above) is important, because not only does du Pont share the same dreams as Mark, but du Pont individualizes Mark from Dave. This is Mark's dream come true, someone who's just as passionate as him about wrestling and America, with the funds to back up his goals.
He invites Schultz to join his private wrestling team, entitled Team Foxcatcher, where he will coach, train for the World championship and be paid handsomely. Mark accepts du Pont's offer, with du Pont urging him to enlist his brother Dave as well. Dave declines for the sake of his wife and two kids (video above), who are settled where they live, so Mark moves to du Pont's estate alone.
We see little glimpses of potential problems when Mark, in an excited frenzy, immediately drives back to du Pont's estate in order to move in. We come to find out that after Mark was asked to go back to try and convince Dave, that he could move in "within the week". Mark arrives back within a day or two, unannounced.
Instead of the warm, inviting reception he receives during the first visit, things get off to a more awkward start when he arrives back this time. Instead of being greeted by du Pont himself, he is greeted by du Pont's lawyer, who asks Mark a series of personal questions to make sure du Pont is making a smart legal decision. We're also introduced to du Pont's assistant and head of security Jack (played by Anthony Michael Hall), who sets him up in the lavish guest house, and warns him not to under any circumstances, speak with du Pont's ailing mother (Vanessa Redgrave).
Through training with his new teammates and du Pont's financial support, Mark excels with Foxcatcher, winning Gold at the 1987 World Wrestling Championships. Du Pont gives him much praise and they develop a kind of friendship. However, it becomes clear what's truly behind these developments.
This begins when du Pont introduces Mark to cocaine before a huge banquet in du Pont's honor. Du Pont also asks Mark to read a speech he has prepared for him which will serve as his introduction. What he has asked Mark to say is quite embarrassing indeed. What begins to become apparent is that Mark is du Pont's living trophy boy that he brings around just to say great things about du Pont.
Wrestling, all of a sudden, doesn't become as important to Mark, who is now addicted to cocaine. Mark and du Pont have become great friends, culminating with du Pont telling Mark that he's never had a real friend before. The only friend he thought he ever had as a kid, was in fact, paid off by his mother to be his friend.
A Low Sport
It's already been established at this point in the film, that du Pont doesn't particularly like his mother. The turning point for du Pont, and indeed the film's story, is a conversation John and his mother (Jean) have regarding wrestling (video above). After John impassionately explains why he is doing this, and his beliefs in making America great again, Jean du Pont tells her son that she believes that the sport of wrestling is beneath him.
This sends John into a frenzy, as his mother's further disapproval only makes his desire to win even greater. The next day, in an electrifying scene, Mark and his teammates in Foxcatcher take a morning off from training to watch MMA on TV. Angered by this (as well as Mark insisting that his brother will not join Team Foxcatcher), du Pont verbally and physically rebuffs him, saying that he'll enlist Dave by any means necessary.
Dave decides to move with his family to Pennsylvania so he can join Foxcatcher. His self-esteem damaged by du Pont, Mark decides to work and train alone, pushing du Pont and even Dave away. As Team Foxcatcher prepares to enter the preliminaries for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, du Pont's mother is escorted into du Pont's gym to watch him coach his team. He awkwardly demonstrates basic maneuvers for her and the other wrestlers. Jean leaves. A documentary funded by du Pont about his exploits with Team Foxcatcher is made, during which Dave is asked to praise him as coach and mentor. However, Dave can't even bring himself to bullshit about du Pont. He begins to learn the world of media and manipulation.
Psychology and American Exceptionalism
Mark's dream of becoming his own man is cut short by the very person who befriended him and gave him this extraordinary opportunity. We see how psychology and American Exceptionalism collide in that riveting scene. Mark and John's desire to be recognized and hailed above family members who have that, along with the theory of exceptionalism, push the tension and drama in Foxcatcher.
This is the dark side of the can do American attitude, approached from different classes of people. Mark is the one who actually has to do the work. He and his brother Dave have truly come from nothing, and have been orphaned since they were young. Yet, while we're taught that the American way is hard work pays off, it hasn't for Mark.
Du Pont is a millionaire who has never had to work hard for anything in his life, so he has no idea, in terms of the dedication and consistency it takes to succeed. He's only concerned with titles and positions, not what it takes to earn them, preferring that everyone calls him 'coach', or quite ridiculously, 'Eagle'. John is a nationalist, and overly prideful in the United States. He envisions using his fortunes to a create a super wrestling team to fulfill his Cold War-era sentiment of needing to beat the communists and promote American exceptionalism. Costs and means mean nothing to him, only the juvenile idea of expressing power and dominance, with 'his' wrestlers being his foot-soldiers to spread the word.
Dave Schultz is perhaps the most ironic character in the story. Initially hesitant of du Pont and the many promises he's offered, Dave arrives to Foxcatcher Farms after the whole blow up between Mark and John. While Mark eventually leaves, not being able to handle living near du Pont anymore, Dave decides that the cozy situation at du Pont's estate (he's given his own guest house, far bigger than anywhere he or his family has lived before) is too good for him and his family to leave. The roles are reversed between Mark and Dave.
However, Dave is savvy enough to negotiate a deal with du Pont to continue to support Mark financially so he can pursue competition. Du Pont and Dave's relationship is an awkward one. A documentary funded by du Pont about his exploits with Team Foxcatcher is made, during which Dave is asked to praise him as coach and mentor, the only thing is, he can't. Dave can't even bullshit about how much du Pont's coaching has helped. Du Pont is bewildered by Dave's devotion to his family and independence from his control. Indeed, while it turns out that Dave can be bought, he still retains his individuality from du Pont, unlike Mark.
Mark and Dave
Dave and Mark's relationship is a fascinating one. Take for instance, the first time we see them interact together in the beginning of the film. Mark has just experienced the embarrassing speech at the elementary school, and arrives eager and ready to go for morning practice with his brother. Dave knows something is wrong with Mark, but he can't express it. They have this conversation while going through the warm ups associated with the sport of wrestling.
Wrestling is an intimate sport, one versus another. How the conversation plays out through the mechanisms of wrestling is truly interesting. As they continue to warm up, Dave pushing the issue, the physicality of the warm ups begin to intensify, eventually leading to brother vs. brother. As hard as Mark tries, Dave beats him, despite the bloody nose Mark gives him.
Dave has always been loving and close towards his brother. It's Mark's frustration of being in the shadows that he can't express verbally, is the reason why Mark resorts to violence, or hitting things, to express this.
Leading up to the 1988 Summer Olympic preliminary matches, it's clear Mark is not ready. Mark performs poorly, losing his first match. Deeply angered by his failure, Mark violently destroys his room and goes on an eating binge. His brother Dave manages to break into his room and is alarmed at his brother's condition.
They work feverishly so he can make his weight check. Mark competes well enough to win his match and make the Olympic team. Dave notices that du Pont is absent, learning that he left for Pennsylvania after being told his mother had died. Mark tells Dave that he cannot stay with Team Foxcatcher once the Olympics are over. Mark loses his matches in Seoul.
Years later, du Pont sits in his room watching the documentary made on Team Foxcatcher, which ends with Mark giving a glowing compliment to du Pont at a ceremony depicted earlier. Du Pont drives to Dave's home and shoots and kills him, driving off as Dave's wife (Sienna Miller) calls the police. The police find and arrest du Pont.
The reasoning for du Pont murdering Dave is left pretty ambiguous. Du Pont shouts at Dave, before he kills him, "Do you have a problem with me?!" Perhaps it's du Pont not being able to comprehend where Dave is coming from. The realization that du Pont has failed Mark, and it is Dave, who is currently benefiting from him. We'll never really know.
The quiet rhythms of the story have reached one with the ripplings of the nuances between the men; few films are as packed with, and benefit from, churning subtext similar to this one. For an account that unwinds over nearly 10 years, the director, along with his writers and three editors, achieves an extremely fine balance both in the rhythms and overall shaping of the drama.
As far as the film's Oscar chances are concerned, the acting indisputably should be nominated. It's going to be hard to tell how American awards voters will react to the film. Foxcatcher received a tremendous reaction back in May at Cannes, whether it can keep up that momentum, who knows. Regardless, this is one of the best of 2014.