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‘Foxcatcher’: A missed opportunity

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

“Foxcatcher” is inspired by the true story of multimillionaire, John duPont, and his evolving relationship with two amateur wrestlers. It has all the elements of a Greek tragedy.

The film’s documentary prologue recapitulates the founding of the DuPont family business back in the early 19th century. The company flourished during the American Civil War, when it became the principal supplier of vital gunpowder to Union troops. Following diversification, DuPont became one of the world’s largest chemical companies.

Wrestlers, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older sibling, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), won more NCAA, U.S. Open, World, and Olympic titles than any American brother combination in history.  Despite Mark’s athletic accomplishments, the film presents him as glum, taciturn, and plagued with a deep-seated sense of self-doubt. According to the film, the socially dyscontextualized bachelor felt overshadowed by his brother. Dave was seventeen months older and a happily married family man with two loving children.

Sporting a prosthetic proboscis, Steve Carell plays John duPont, the eccentric scion of what the film contends was the wealthiest family in the United States. At one juncture, duPont ruefully recalls that growing up, he only had one friend, the son of the family chauffeur. He eventually learned that his mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), had paid the chauffeur to have his son feign friendship with young John and play with him.

As an adult, despite his vast wealth, duPont continued to be a social pariah. He was consumed with a desperate desire to win the approbation of his peers and emotionally distant mother.

In anticipation of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, duPont hatched a scheme. He decided to personally finance the U.S. Olympic wrestling team. To advance this agenda, he constructed a state of the art training facility for the wrestling team. It was located on his family’s sprawling 800-acre estate, Foxcatcher Farm, in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. In exchange for his financial support, duPont was named as the team’s titular coach, despite his lack of any legitimate credentials.

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Steve Carell in a scene from "Foxcatcher." Carell portrays John du Pont, a millionaire convicted of third-degree murder in the death of Dave Schultz, an Olympic champion freestyle wrestler.  (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics, Scott Garfield)

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Steve Carell in a scene from “Foxcatcher.” Carell portrays John du Pont, a millionaire convicted of third-degree murder in the death of Dave Schultz, an Olympic champion freestyle wrestler. (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics, Scott Garfield)

What ensues is a depiction of the complex dynamic that ensued between duPont and the Schultz bothers and how it impacted the relationship between the two siblings. As the film unfolds, duPont engages in a litany of progressively more bizarre actions. He purchases an operational tank. Did he think that the Foxcatcher estate was subject to military attack?  He claims that his friends, who are non-existent, refer to him as either “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle.” DuPont hubristically dictates that the members of the wrestling team should address him by one of these self-selected sobriquets. Later, he commissions a self-aggrandizing documentary to be made about him. In it, Mark is directed to speciously describe the philanthropist as his mentor, even though that is clearly not the case. Did duPont become progressively more insane or are the filmmakers simply unveiling more of his extant derangement?

Bennett Miller’s debut feature, “Capote,” and follow-up, “Moneyball,” were both superb. The former film focused on Truman Capote and his writing of the best-selling non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood.” It resulted in five Academy Award nominations, including a win for the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as best lead actor. The latter film starred Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Bean. It dramatized his groundbreaking use of computer-generated analysis to construct a major league roster.  The latter film garnered six Oscar nominations.  These two films invited high expectations for Miller’s third venture.

“Foxcatcher” competed for a Palme d’Or in the main competition section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. It won a Best Director Award for Bennett Miller. “Foxcatcher” has been widely touted as a likely Oscar nominee in multiple categories, including best film, director, and various acting categories.

“Foxcatcher” is a well-crafted film. The casting, acting, direction and production values are all technically excellent. However, the film is dramatically inert. It is profoundly lacking in the slightest scintilla of viscerality.

The spare dialogue leaves the viewer to speculate on what is going on inside of the characters’ heads as they brood onscreen. Is DuPont a harmless oddball or a paranoid schizophrenic? How about Mark Schultz? How troubled is he?

A screen capture from the trailer to the film "Foxcatcher" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8361stZ8n0w

A screen capture from the trailer to the film “Foxcatcher” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8361stZ8n0w

Even when films are supposedly based on actual events, they often exercise significant artistic license. The screenplay for “Foxcatcher” is no exception. It takes liberties with the truth by compressing the timeline. The film is explicitly set in 1987. It suggests that duPont slayed Dave Schultz shortly thereafter. In reality, the fatal shooting did not take place until January 26, 1996, nearly a decade later. What happened in those intervening years?

The circumstances surrounding John duPont’s descent into madness and its tragic consequences are fascinating.   The failure of “Foxcatcher” to capture the underlying story constitutes a missed opportunity of monumental proportions.

“Foxcatcher” **1/2 R (for some drug use and a scene of violence) 134 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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