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Shaking Hands with the Bird of Prey
Written on 01/31/2015, film first viewed by author on 01/28/2015
Throughout history, there have always been the haves and have-nots: Rockefellers to immigrant railroad workers, Roosevelts to migrant orange pickers, Kennedys to disowned hippies, Romneys to fast food cashiers, and so on. There are masters and servants, the kings and pawns, the ones who control the game and the ones who merely play it. No game is as deadly as a hunt. The master, if skillful and lucky, wins the game by ensnaring and ultimately killing the opponent. The prey, in all reality, never has a chance. For the most part, they are oblivious to the stakes, and, when the time comes, defenseless. The last person one would expect to be potential prey is an Olympic wrestler. An even more unlikely hunter would be a seemingly harmless, modern-day philanthropist with the world at his fingertips.
Based on true events, director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a film that presents a very basic cast of characters that will find themselves in extraordinary, and finally grim, situations. Mark and David Schultz are brothers, both Olympic medalists in the sport of wrestling. Though close to equally skilled, David (Mark Ruffalo) manages to capture big contracts and start a loving family, while Mark (Channing Tatum) is less fortunate, living from gig to gig and starving in a small apartment. At this point, Mark is merely David’s training partner. All of that changes when Mark is called upon by John du Pont (Steve Carrell), one of the richest men in America. du Pont wants to start his own training facility for the next Olympic wrestling team at his estate of Foxcatcher Farms near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. With David’s blessing, Mark makes a deal with du Pont and moves to Foxcatcher. What Mark doesn’t realize initially is that du Pont was looking for the packaged deal: to have both him and David as his “assistant coaches”. Mark explains that David doesn’t want to uproot his family and career, and furthermore states that “Dave can’t be bought”. For the time being, du Pont is content. At first, Mark and du Pont are enamored with each other. Mark trains du Pont’s team, acts as his trophy for elitist events, and even shows him some wrestling moves. In return, du Pont denies Mark nothing. Meanwhile, du Pont tries to prove his worth to his pompous, equestrian mother.
Eventually, Mark becomes lazy, too use to the lap of luxury. Strange, late night, private practices with du Pont becoming humiliating, emasculating acts that verge on sexual abuse. du Pont allows the use of drugs at Foxcatcher, seriously hurting Mark’s training. Mark begins to neglect the coaching responsibilities and lets the team have too many days off. This infuriates du Pont, who chastises Mark and tells him he his getting David, “no matter how much it costs”. Indeed, David comes to Foxcatcher with his family, no doubt making a better deal with du Pont than Mark did. There, David finds his brother a changed man, psychologically scarred. With Mark’s imminent breakdown, David’s mixed feelings towards du Pont, and du Pont’s gradual slide into an unstable mentality, an emotional powder keg is set to explode at Foxcatcher.
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The key character to this psycho-thriller/sports drama/docudrama is clearly Carrell’s du Pont. He drives the plot, initiating Mark’s transformation from innocent athlete to victimized arm-candy. Just as he is the proprietor of opportunity, he is also the unpredictable dasher of dreams. du Pont is powerful and charismatic, calling all of the shots to his advantage. He calls himself “the Eagle”, and convinces some of Team Foxcatcher to call him that as well. He sees himself as an all-seeing bird of prey and all of his obstacles, goals, and foes as foxes he shall catch (a comparison he makes to his predecessors’ old tradition of fox hunting). Ironically, the pox-marked, big-nosed face of du Pont makes this analogy even more apparent (fulfilled with great makeup effects used on Carrell to make him look like the real-life multimillionaire). As he slips farther into the dark side of his ambitions and insecurities, du Pont’s role as a fox-catching predator becomes increasingly dangerous and sinister.
du Pont is “the man with everything” that really does not have everything. Though he has the legacy of his illustrious family, it becomes more of a long, dark shadow than an institution of pride. He has no legacy as far as a loving family that respects him, and has never had friends that were not paid. Here is where similarities can be made between Mark and du Pont. Both stand in the tall shadows of legacies, the du Pont Empire and David Schultz’s career respectively. Both are lonely, without their own families to call them patriarchs and without many friends (a result of forms of self-alienation). They hope to get something out of each other, from du Pont a father and from Mark a trusted friend, but both hopes are sad illusions right from the start. They are founded on the relationship of money easily given, money desperately needed.
What is also apparent is the concept of price, literally and metaphorically speaking. Everything in Foxcatcher has a price, just like most anything in the real world. To du Pont, everyone has a price, much like the Devil making a deal to acquire one’s soul. Yes, some souls are way more expensive than others, but to a man of du Pont’s wealth no one is completely unattainable. To those who shake his hand and sign his contract, they may end up paying a price of their own. In the world of Olympic athletes, one’s body can pay the price, especially in a full-contact sport like wrestling. After Mark goes on a depression-fueled eating binge, he is forced by his brother to vomit and exercise rigorously in full-bodied sweat clothes to get back to a qualifying weight. Broken noses and cauliflower ears are also noticeable throughout. The brain suffers as much trauma as the body, which may be the cause of some of Mark’s poor judgment. Even after Olympic victory, a life of fame, glamour, and financial security is not guaranteed; especially in Mark’s case. Knowing nothing else, he is let loose into the indifferent public. It is a recycled ritual of “career-acceptable body torture”, reminding one of scenes from Aronofsky’s Black Swan and The Wrestler.
As far as Carrell’s overall performance, this author says, “Wow”. Not only is it curious and captivating, it is proof that Carrell has a great width to his acting palette. His transformation should forever break his typecast of funnymen and romantic comedy father figures. Channing Tatum also pulls off a noteworthy acting job, breaking his mold of mere meat-headed hunk and diving into a character more emotionally deep and psychologically motivated.
Foxcatcher’s startling conclusion (to those who are unfamiliar with the true story) becomes almost inevitable after a “point of no return”, that moment in the film where one would say, “this feels like the end, so it will probably cut to black”. It does not cut to black in du Pont’s study. He calls for his car to be brought around, and he is off to do one last thing. From a storytelling point of view, the ending makes complete sense, though it is painfully sad and true. The tale of two brothers and a rich man goes from sports history to cautionary tale. One should be careful when they name their price, and never buy into a debt too steep.