Dir. Bennett Miller. USA. 2014

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Based on a true story that made headlines in the late 1990s, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a superb psychological drama that features Oscar-worthy performances from Channing Tatum as an emotionally repressed Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler, Mark Ruffalo as his supportive brother, and a barely recognizable Steve Carell, playing a scion of one of America’s wealthiest families. With a screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, the film brings to life the tragic consequences of an emotionally dependent relationship built on psychological control and delivers it with relentless tension.

Three years after winning a gold-medal in wrestling at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) has lost none of his physical attributes but much of his self esteem. Poor and unrecognized, he lives alone in an apartment, eats fast foods, and ekes out a living giving lectures to elementary grade school students. His brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champion wrestler, has provided much of the emotional support Mark requires but now lives in Colorado with his wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) and their two children, Danielle (Samara Lee) and Alexander (Jackson Fraser). Mark’s life is rebooted, however, when he receives a call from John du Pont (Steve Carell), a wrestling enthusiast and a member of the one of the wealthiest families in America.

Du Pont asks Mark to come to his 800-acre estate in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania to train a wrestling team capable of winning gold at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The eccentric du Pont lives with his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave), a horse breeder who looks down at wrestling as a “low” activity, prompting him to make snide comments about horses. Convinced by the huge sum of money he is offered and eager to emerge from his brother’s shadow, Mark readily agrees and is flown first class to Pennsylvania to help in his mentor’s stated goal of training a winning Olympics wrestling team and maintaining America’s prestige. Du Pont has something to prove to himself and tells Mark, “Coach is father. Coach is mentor. Coach has great power on an athlete’s life.”

Though Mark is happy living in the estate’s opulent guest house, he wants his brother to come to Pennsylvania and bring his family, but Dave is unwilling to uproot his family and break his commitment to his job. Asked to give John personal wrestling lessons and perhaps perform other duties that are hinted at but not mentioned, the relationship between the teacher and his student begins a downward spiral when Mark is offered and begins to use Cocaine. With a military tank on his estate for sport and a gun in his pocket that he fires into the ceiling during a practice session, to say that du Pont is strange is like saying vampires prefer their meat slightly undercooked. 

As Mark’s physical abilities on the mat begin to deteriorate, DuPont calls him an “ungrateful ape” slapping him across the face. Out of concern for his brother, Dave is enticed to come to the estate, but an undercurrent of suppressed emotion and resentment re-escalates the tension, leading to an unforeseen tragedy. Though understated and deliberately paced, Foxcatcher is a powerful experience that winds us in a knot then challenges us to make sense of what is left unsaid. Though the film does not have an overt political agenda, it illuminates the consequences of distorted values arising from a feeling of entitlement. du Pont could easily stand for the mindset of the privileged few who think that power and love are commodities they can buy on the open market and expect the rest of us to defer to them obsequiously. Unfortunately, many do.


Howard Schumann

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