Warning: this article contains spoilers.
The Oscar nominations loom, and Bennett Miller’s quiet masterpiece Foxcatcher deserves recognition. The film is a genuine “state of the nation” story, something that in recent years is all too rare. A haunting explanation of the American class system, the film asks pertinent questions about power, privilege and masculinity.
Set in the 80s and 90s, the film is inspired by the true story of the millionaire aristocrat John du Pont (Steve Carell) and his sponsorship of a wrestling programme he calls “Team Foxcatcher”. Du Pont recruits downtrodden Olympic gold medallist Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum), who begins the film shyly sharing his story of determination and aspiration with a group of disengaged schoolchildren in exchange for US$20. Du Pont tells Mark that America has failed to honour his achievements, that he wants to invest in him and others like him. He sells the young wrestler a compelling vision of nationhood through athleticism – a vision familiar to the typical American sports drama.
But Foxcatcher is far from typical – instead, it is a tightly woven collection of long, pregnant silences and static frames, punctuated by moments of frenzied rupture and crisis. Its minimal aesthetic draws together foundational themes of the American Dream; as sport, family, ambition, nationhood are rendered with poetic restraint – and their relevance today questioned.
In one of the film’s many lyrical moments, Mark puts his possessions in his car and sets out on the long journey to du Pont’s lavish estate. He is embarking on what he perceives to be a new brighter future for his life, his sport and his nation. The landscape that unfolds before him is wholesome and idealised: lush fields, bathed in autumnal hues; a flag flying; a large working farm. The sequence feels simultaneously like a dream and an elegy.
But as he arrives at the du Pont estate the landscape changes. The virtuous “blue collar” aesthetic is gone, replaced by a static, claustrophobic stillness. The first meeting between Mark and his benefactor is shot at a distance, with the younger man almost overwhelmed by du Pont’s possessions and the imposing architecture of the unfamiliar and conspicuously aristocratic space. The self-styled “Golden Eagle” (as du Pont is called, he says) has begun the slow consumption of his innocent prey.
In interviews about the film, director Bennett Miller has been reticent to endorse such allegorical readings, but he has acknowledged a little of the film’s symbolic potential. It is a study of three fatherless men, du Pont, Mark and his older brother Dave, a wrestling coach and fellow Olympic gold medallist. For Miller, America is also something of a fatherless child. He told Radio 4 that those without fathers believe that “anything is possible” while possessing an “underlying anxiety that does not go away”.
Du Pont’s unbridled power, his sense of entitlement and his unerring belief in his deeply misguided worldview is all encompassing, as is his tragic paranoia. His acquisition of male athletes is bound up in what appears to be a philosophy of manifest destiny and contrasts with Dave’s almost Corinthian commitment to sport for sport’s sake. For both father figures, sport is a way of ordering the world, yet their worlds are so very different.
Dave is a family man, his roots are fixed. He values notions of place, community, solidarity: when we see him coach his wrestlers he does so in ways which are indistinguishable from how he plays with his children or tenderly touches someone on the shoulder to provide comfort or show empathy. Du Pont’s cold, sinister paternalism on the other hand is an intrinsic part of his aristocratic isolation. His way of understanding his and the nation’s place in the world is articulated through the instinctive proprietorial domination of his athletes. Mark is the child torn between these two fathers, these two versions of America.
Sport then is the battleground for this conflict of ideologies, this contest between radically opposed ways of imagining the nation, two ways of being. In one of the film’s early scenes Dave and Mark spar. We see them touching each other’s faces and bodies in close up. To the uninitiated this looks like an unspoken affirmation of Mark and Dave’s brotherhood and we are unsure if they are wrestling or embracing – sport here is about emotional intimacy as well as competition. Later, du Pont performs in his role as “coach” at “Foxcatcher Gym”. He pathetically demonstrates a “hold” on a reluctant young wrestler who lies face down on the floor submissively. We watch with the wrestlers, pitying their paymaster while afraid to challenge his tyranny.
The film’s tragic conclusion brings these tensions to the boil. As Dave lies dead in the snow, gunned down by a coldly crazed du Pont, the sports narrative as a national story of determination and underdog victory is thwarted. In its place lies a hollow and shocking jolt forward to something all together more prescient: unchecked privilege wins out against values of labour, fairness and hard work.