Foxcatcher (2014)

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*. Whenever a movie based on real events changes those events in significant ways you have to ask what the director was really interested in, what his angle was.
*. In Bennett Miller’s own words, the closed-off worlds this story is concerned with (elite sports, dynastic wealth, repressed homosexuality, drug use) introduced the “narrative of a cult. You’ve got all the essential ingredients — a disaffected community in these wrestlers who are unrecognized and unrewarded. A charismatic leader who belongs to another sect that speaks to them. A utopian vision. A geographical separation from the outer world, literally, by a gate in which their own order is permitted to be honored. And an underbelly of violence, because the natural course of a cult narrative is to end in flames.”
*. I can see some of this, but John du Pont, both in real life and as we see him here, was only a wannabe cult leader. He was devoid of charisma. He had to bribe people to call him father, mentor, and coach — labels that are treated more as brands, like “Team Foxcatcher,” than as human roles.
*. What did Miller change? In real life du Pont was a much stranger figure (I recommend watching the ESPN documentary The Prince of Pennsylvania for background). At the end, it was clear to everyone around him that he was a dangerous psychotic with a drug problem, someone who had taken to threatening people with guns. In the movie he’s an odd duck to be sure, but a sympathetic figure and not threatening.
*. The thing is, what he represents here is the dark reality of the American dream: the terrible unhappiness and isolation that accompanies great wealth. The point being not only that money can’t buy you love, happiness, or even friends, but that it actually poisons these things.
*. Is that an un-American message? There’s something provocative going on with all the invocations to American revolutionary history, du Pont’s Cold War mentality, and the final shot of the crowds chanting “U.S.A.!” at what appears to be some tacky pro wrestling event. What are they fighting for? It doesn’t seem like freedom and democracy.

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*. “Wanna tell me what’s going on with you and du Pont?” Dave asks Mark. That is the question, isn’t it?
*. I don’t think the movie has to be any more explicit on this score. Du Pont’s leanings are made pretty clear, and the real Mark Schultz even objected to what he, understandably, took to be indications of a homosexual relationship. This is all fine, and I don’t think it was necessary for Miller to say anything more about it. David Lean was even less explicit in his portrait of Lawrence of Arabia and I think everybody got the point.
*. What surprised me when the movie came out, and still surprises me somewhat today, is how few mainstream critics even mentioned this angle. Du Pont was a “creep,” someone with a “weird obsession” or a representative of “moral decadence,” but the words gay, homosexual, or even the more innocuous “homosocial” were rarely if ever used. Why not?
*. To take just one example, very typical in this regard, Mark Kermode refers to the “tormented,” “pathetically impotent” du Pont’s “unfulfilled desires,” and the film’s delving into “the tortured male psyche.” A point is raised about a “homoerotic subtext” (can we really call it a subtext?), only to dismiss this as just a bit of stereotyping that Miller isn’t interested in. Which makes one then wonder why he included it, as it didn’t come directly from the source. Miller could have simply made du Pont a drug-addled paranoid schizophrenic, but he chose to leave that stuff out.
*. Why not discuss this angle? Questioning sexuality has always been a happy hunting ground for film critics. In gangster films, for example, it’s almost de rigueur to go over the ambiguous sexuality of figures from James Cagney’s Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and Edward G. Robinson’s Rico in Little Caesar all the way up to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface. And just before I made up my notes on this film I had occasion to re-watch The Third Man, where both of the commentaries on the Criterion DVD made much of whether Harry Lime and Holly Martins were something more than just good friends, while it was simply taken for granted that Kurtz and Dr. Winkel were gay partners.
*. I think there might be something to these various examples, but they don’t seem that important. In Foxcatcher, however, I think it is important to recognize how physically attracted du Pont is to Mark, and Mark’s status as a kept man. This is a movie about a romantic obsession that turns violent. Why was it taboo to speak of this in reviews? Miller invested a lot of time developing it. I’m not saying that’s all there is to the du Pont character — far from it! — or that there is something inherently damaging about his love that dares not speak its name. But surely in the twenty-first century we can handle representations of the dark side of homoerotic love.
*. How did this movie ever get stuck with an “R” rating? “For some drug use and a scene of violence.” That’s “some” drug use as in one scene where John and Mark snort lines of coke in the helicopter. And “a” (singular) scene of violence when Dave gets shot. There aren’t even any exploding squibs, and there’s very little blood. You have to have adult accompaniment if you’re under 18 to see this?
*. I know professional fighters have insane weight cuts, but can an in-shape athlete really shed twelve pounds in ninety minutes? Just by inducing some vomiting and riding an exercise bike?
*. Steve Carell, an actor best known for comic parts, received a lot of praise, and an Academy Award nomination, for his turn as John du Pont. I have reservations. An enormous prosthesis nose gives him a grotesque appearance, which he exaggerates by holding it in the air all the time. He also has a constipated delivery that makes his limited lines stand out awkwardly.
*. For such a long film full of character studies it’s not very talky. These are physical, isolated, repressed types, not men of words. This is further emphasized by the number of scenes Miller chooses to present in eerie silence, or with an ear-damaged tinkling of piano in the background.
*. The wrestling brothers share in the same distortion to the point of grotesquerie. Mark Ruffalo affects an ape-like walk and Channing Tatum, pumped up till he looks like a plastic action figure, seems far too pouting and dour to be a professional athlete. Where do either of them show any great passion? They were hypercompetitive in real life, but here both seem strangely passive and depressed.
*. The silence, depression and total lack of levity contribute to the main knock against Foxcatcher, which is that it is dull. Dullness is, necessarily, a subjective judgment, but this is certainly a slow and deliberate film. That’s not something I hold against it. This is a tragedy with a slow burn, with the players withdrawn, silent, and repressed to the point where they’ve become opaque and deformed. The pure products of America go crazy. And they have guns.

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