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Home » Culture and Criticism

4/31: Foxcatcher

Submitted by on January 4, 2015 – 12:20 PM4 Comments
Screen: Sony Pictures Classics

Screen: Sony Pictures Classics

"But it's still a true crime story bloated into looking significant," David Edelstein sighs of Foxcatcher in his review, and I concur with the "bloated into looking significant" part while having to take issue with the "true crime story" part, for two reasons.

The first reason is The Attitude About True Crime. Not to get off on a "you know In Cold Blood is true crime, right?" rant here, and I should add that Edelstein's take on Foxcatcher overall is spot-on, but the implication in this specific phrasing is that a true-crime story requires bloating in order to look significant; otherwise it's just voyeuristic trash. A lot of true crime is voyeuristic trash, but so is a lot of Oscar bait. To say a true-crime narrative can't have greater import or say anything about larger issues is not correct.

The second reason: Foxcatcher isn't a true-crime story, not really. It's a true story, and it ends in a crime, but the story isn't about that crime — to its detriment, in my opinion, although if it maintained any consistency as to what it is about, that wouldn't bother me. It doesn't; it doesn't know its strengths. Initially, it's about Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling who still dwells in the shadow of his older and more socially adroit brother, David (Mark Ruffalo, inhabiting the role better than the script has a right to expect), coming under the sway of John du Pont (Steve Carell, wielding a prosthetic nose like he's wearing a cervical collar). Du Pont is a rich creep with mommy issues who has identified in the way of predators since time immemorial the lonely and vulnerable member of the herd, and circled him off for grooming, but for awhile, that's okay with Mark; he's uncomfortable with the cocaine and the hands-on "coaching," and the frosted hair isn't his idea, but he's allowed to believe something is his, imperfect and emotionally costly as du Pont's surrogate "fathering" is…until it becomes clear that it's David whom du Pont has wanted all along. It's David who can really put him on the map as a wrestling "mentor." It's David who understands what's asked of him and can find a way to reconcile himself with it emotionally without cracking. And it's David who gets shot.

But as Foxcatcher unfolds, sllllowly, towards the murder we all know is coming, it gives du Pont a turn as the emotional center of the movie, lingering on his mother's (Vanessa Redgrave, doing an effectively subdued Dowager C imitation) gelid snobbishness. Then the focus shifts back to the brothers and Mark's reaction to du Pont and the larger situation, the emotional equivalent of a transplanted organ rejecting its host. What changed David's mind about uprooting his family? Why exactly is Mark shutting down in du Pont's presence now — is it shame? resentment of David, and wanting not to need his help in the ring? did a scene making du Pont and Mark's relationship more explicit get cut? I don't need everything explained to me — the opposite is my preference, generally — but a film that's going to waste screentime on du Pont basically evicting his mother's prized horses from their barn after her death clearly doesn't have an issue with making motivations plain. Then David gets shot, and that gets no real lead-up. Plenty of slo-mo and dropped sound, though, which combined with a repetitive number of "behold the tininess of man's concerns" wide shots suggests that director Bennett Miller didn't want or know how to direct his actors at key moments. Or, again, that he doesn't know where the real story is.

I don't know that I do, either, to tell you the truth. Sometimes there isn't much story with a murder, and that's probably true of this one, honestly: du Pont in real life had gotten weirder and more paranoid (and boozed up) in the time before he shot David Schultz, but like most murders, there was no "good" reason for it to happen, and it's not a whodunnit or anything. Sometimes there isn't much story with brothers, either. Sometimes "a rich dude acted strangely" is not quite the garden of narrative delights you hope for when you open Final Draft. Foxcatcher is well acted, in the sense that the three leads make the script look better than it is — but Edelstein's right. This is a movie bent on significance, and Miller and the screenwriters know there's significance in them thar hills. Nutty, repressed heirs + brother Olympians + murder must = something grander than a pale hybrid of Gods & Monsters and Warrior, right?

I agree with that too. There is a significant story here, somewhere; this isn't it. I hope Ruffalo scores gold, if only for that "I really don't want to call him my mentor" scene with the documentary filmmaker, but Foxcatcher overall doesn't pan out.

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4 Comments »

  • kategm says:

    I think this is one of those "I really want to see but I don't know if I can handle seeing in a movie theater" movies for me– like it might be too intense to watch on a big screen. From the trailer alone, Steve Carrell is creeping me out so…good job, movie?

    I was in middle school when the Schultz murder and standoff were going down so I just remember what a snow-covered, bitterly cold winter it was– and how the police had cut off DuPont's heat to force him outside finally.

    Also, my high school holds its graduation ceremonies at Villanova University's formerly named John Eleuthère du Pont Pavilion. So in 1992, I'm at my sister's graduation ceremony going, "huh. That guy has a really long name." Then the Schultz murder happened and my first thought was, "ooh, I wonder if they're going to change the name at that pavilion place now." (I was kind of a terrible 12-year old).

    If I remember correctly (and Wikipedia sort of backs me up on this), Villanova gradually changed the building's name/signage from the full name, to DuPont Pavilion, to finally just The Pavilion in between my and my other siblings' graduations (1996, 2001, 2006). But even in 2006, you could still see the markings from the old name.

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  • Maura says:

    Ultimately I would say I enjoyed the movie, but I agree with your points-are you going to be about wrestling, or brothers, or a disturbed rich man, or murder, or what? Richer focus on one of these things probably would have made it work better as a whole-if, in fact, there is anything really interesting there, like you said. I did think Ruffalo did a great job-I felt like I understood him as a man and his motivations much clearer than either Tatum or Carrell, while they were both good as well. Finally, I am very much interested in this "lose 12 pounds of water weight in 90 minutes" thing, given the nachos I ate at the screening.