JOHN DU PONT wants a gold medal for wrestling in the Seoul Olympics of 1988. And he’ll do anything to ensure that medal ends up in his trophy case.
STEVE CARELL plays du Pont with his nose from DESPICABLE ME. Which is appropriate because his character is despicable. John du Pont is KIM JONG IL – an egotistical tyrant and delusional dictator.
Meet MARK SCHULTZ training with a wrestling dummy, perfecting his grappling techniques. It seems like he’s exorcising as much as exercising. This lifeless prop doesn’t fight back, is easy to manipulate. This is how du Pont sees Schultz. Someone he can exploit to get that gold medal.
du Pont lures Mark (CHANNING TATUM) with an offer he can’t refuse. Win him a gold medal, train in his facilities, you’ll have your own house (rent free, paid utilites & fully stocked fridge), and you’ll get paid whatever you want. Carell declares, “It’s about more than some piece of metal. It’s about what it represents, and the virtues required to obtain it.” Tatum gladly accepts the deal. He doesn’t know any better, asking for only $25,000 salary. Carell was betting on this ignorance. The exploitation and manipulation begins.
Affection is shared through physical contact with the characters of FOXCATCHER. We meet Mark’s brother, DAVE Schultz (MARK RUFFALO), without any dialogue. With one extended and uninterrupted camera shot, the two brothers greet – they warm up in the ring, starting with something akin to a hug (a sign of affection), then quickly turning into grapples and wrestling. In a way this is how these two show one another love.
Tatum is quite impressive in this role. He’s evolved a lot on screen. His acting here is full of quiet moments crackling with contained energy. His emotions are bottled up. He stares in a mirror, examing himself, searching for the life within, there’s no visible emotion, he touches a bruised cheek, he pokes it, he taps it, he hits it, harder and harder. Why does he feel he deserves so much pain? Is this the only way he can feel anymore? FOXCATCHER never gives you the answer, but the superior acting more than suggests the interior.
When du Pont (Carell) meets Mark (Tatum) it’s the equivalent of the opening scene when Mark fought the practise wrestling dummy. du Pont fights with words. He manipulates Mark like that dummy, without any resistance, playing on his insecurities and ignorance. du Pont is duplicitous with his words, “You train with your brother, the great Dave Schultz, and I’m talking to the great Mark Schultz… We as a Nation failed to honour you. And that’s a problem… I am a patriot and I want to see this country soar again.” du Pont says all the right words to appease Mark’s fractured ego and broken soul.
Once Mark agrees to work for John he is fed the family’s propaganda through documentaries about the du Pont legacy. It’s clear John has a lot to live up to. He is under great pressure to please his mother and prove he is a success. She wasn’t impressed by his love of birdwatching, and she isn’t impressed with his wrestling endevaour. She calls it “a low sport,” and she doesn’t “like seeing (him) low.”
While this movie is dark and heavy, there is the occasional light-hearted moment, even if it’s just watching Dave with his family, or Mark hugging his coach. The funniest joke comes at a bittersweet moment when Mark dabels in the dark side peer pressured by John. He snorts a long line of cocaine. Both men are high as they practise John’s upcoming important speech. They repeat a phrase over and over: “ornithologist, philanthropist.”
Maybe it’s because how subtle and emotionally complex the rest of the movie is, but I laughed my ass off here. It proved that Mark has fun with John – and in a way they have become best friends. The other layer to that joke is how complicated words make you sound sophisticated – even if you don’t believe you are. Mark thinks why not say these words in normal English. And John laughs because of the fact you can manipulate people so easily with something so insignificant as language. He relies on this trickery, rather than action. His trick is to get others to do his bidding, while he claims the rewards. While this may be easier with others, John finds it harder to control Dave.
There was a sad moment where I actually empathized with du Pont. He acts his best to convince his mother he is a good coach as she watches ringside. He’s more a sponsor than a coach though. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he wants to impress her. He’s thinking: Look at what I did. I’m going to bring this family a gold medal. It holds her interest for a matter of minutes and then she leaves without saying a word, much less any praise for her son’s achievements. This is Carell’s best perfomance on screen. It’s so subtle though. I think that’s why we didn’t hear too much gushing over his role at the Oscars. He is a quiet man tormented and haunted by unfulfilled desires and unattainable goals.
du Pont frees the horses not for their sake, but rather for his own. They act as reminders of his Mother’s disappointment. Why didn’t she love him as much as those horses – he must be thinking? When she died he had no one left to impress. Even if he won a gold medal it would feel empty. Too bad he didn’t return to birdwatching. The outcomes of these men’s lives would be very different.
Even if you know how this true story ends, the journey is worth it. These complex character carefully weave through their dreams and their own illusions. These men have hidden emotions that boil under the surface until they erupt.
Wondering about that ending? I feel like du Pont watched that documentary and remembered what it was like with Mark. That last image was a true emotional moment shared between Mark and John. Mark headed to the stands, found John, and gave him a genuine hug. At this point, John was a father figure. The emotion was real. It would later twist itself into a nest of thorns, but that moment was real.
Conversely, Dave requires several takes to sound honest. He didn’t believe the script – that du Pont is an excellent coach. I think John remembers this. He picked the wrong Schultz. He approaches Dave and asks, “Do you have a problem with me?”
Another layer to this scene is how John replaced Dave as Mark’s father figure. Now that Mark is long gone, John regrets what happened between them. To get back he’ll take it out on the other father figure. Maybe Mark will turn back to him somehow in his delusional mind?
Carell received several nominations for his excellent work here. Tatum delivers his RAGING BULL – a physical role with intense emotions. And Ruffalo portrays the solid foundation – a brute of a man with a gentle heart.
Watching these three crash together make watching FOXCATCHER well worth your time. This impressive film is a fast paced haunting tale about obsession and manipulation with emotionally complex characters.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
You speak… I hear…
Do you think CHANNING TATUM deserved more recognition for his role here?
What did you think of STEVE CARELL’s shift from goofy comedian to Oscar nominated dramatic actor?
Was the movie too dark for you?
Did that ending need more set-up or context?
Was the film too slow for your liking?