Saturday, March 7, 2015
Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Just how much power do the rich have in America? Can you ever really understand just what makes people crazy? Do movies have to try and answer questions like that, or is it enough to eloquently raise them, and leave the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions?
The movie FOXCATCHER raised all of the above questions for me when I watched it with my friend George last Friday night. Now, George and I very often don’t agree on movies. We kid each other that we should have our own Siskel and Ebert type show, as we seem to each have tapped into a different part of the cultural zeitgeist, and each represent a different demographic or mindset or sensibility.
George has no truck with female nudity (which can, all by itself, get me into the theater), for one thing, and detests violence. The first movie we saw together was DANCES WITH WOLVES, and afterwards, while I went on and on about the individual and society, man’s relationship to nature, and both American Imperialism and American Genocide, all he could do was bemoan the bloodshed, which had traumatized him to the point where he could merely grimly nod at what I thought were my quite astute observations.
On the other hand, George does not mind male nudity (which I am not a fan of), and he doesn’t mind what I would call a slow movie, a movie about relationships and ideas where nothing much happens. Not that I need bombs blowing up and a triple digit body count, but still. And he doesn’t mind melodrama, that’s for sure. He got me into Opera once (Turandot), and the ballet, before I wised up and put an embargo on actually paying to watch a bunch of hammy types caterwauling about their romantic problems, sounding as if they had gotten their hands caught in the garbage disposal, or alternately sitting for two hours while admittedly great athletes jump around to no real purpose I can see (the guys in ballet seem to have great quickness and tremendous leaping ability, and I have often wondered whether Baryshnikov could have been the point guard the Knicks needed to get over the top).
We both agreed that BILLY ELIOT was a great movie. I quite enjoyed THE 100 FOOT JOURNEY, but it was not for me, as it was for George, the best movie I had ever seen. So when we both agreed that FOXCATCHER was a truly excellent movie, I took that as a sign it had some kind of broad appeal. That isn’t to say that it is your usual popular American movie. It is not a thriller. Or a romance. Or a comedy with humor broad and obvious enough so that everyone knows when to laugh without really thinking about why they are doing so. No, it is not any of those things, but rather a study in obsession, in madness, in the extremes of human nature, and of how we both reward and punish people who live out there at the edges of sanity, those for whom no sacrifice is too great, or no crime, if it will grant them that thing they are obsessed with having.
Anyone who has a memory for 1996 knows that John DuPont, heir to part of the obscene wealth of the DuPont family, killed Olympic freestyle wrestling champion Dave Schultz that year, and went to jail for third degree murder for doing so. He claimed he was insane at the time he did it, but the court didn’t buy it.
Of the three main characters in the movie—the brothers Dave and Mark Schultz (played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum) and John E DuPont (played by Steve Carrell, who is transformed from the guy you know from THE OFFICE with some great acting and a huge prosthetic nose)—only Dave seems not to suffer from a terrible obsession. Or obsessions. DuPont is obsessed with proving he is a great man not because he inherited a shitload of money but because he is simply a great man, and Mark is obsessed with proving that he is a great wrestler in his own right, and not simply because George is an extraordinary motivator and coach. Also, DuPont has the old love/hate obsessive thing going on with his Mom, who won’t grant that wrestling is anything but a “low” sport, and so won’t let him put any of his wrestling trophies in the trophy case in “The Rose Room” (is it me, or do only the rich give the rooms in their homes/mansions fancy names?)
All three men suffer from a real blindness in one sense or another. DuPont can’t see that people are only paying him lip service when they call him a great man, that he is being humored, patronized, condescended to, and gulled because of all the money he has. Mark Schultz can’t see that DuPont is not a great man, at least not at first, and George Schultz can’t see that DuPont is not just your garden variety eccentric rich guy but a dangerous, paranoid psychopath.
The movie never really answers the question why in reference to these blindnesses and obsessions, but what movie could? Sure, the Schultz’s grew up poor and without their parents, and Dave raised Mark, and the rage and shame of abandonment could have been a driving force in both their lives, and yet most people don’t come away from that kind of thing with the drive to be Olympic Champions. DuPont’s mother (played brilliantly by Vanessa Redgrave) may have really hurt her son with her coldness, but most rejected kids don’t grow up to become murderers. And money certainly made it easier for the raging nutbag DuPont to manipulate people and to damage them in turns, but the need to manipulate and damage is not solely the province of the wealthy—they are just better equipped to do so.
No, the movie doesn’t answer the why of obsession and blindness, it just portrays both of them with stunning believability. At least for me. I am not an expert on acting, but I really believed all three of these actors.
When DuPont invites Mark to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul at the DuPont Family Estate in Delaware (Foxcatcher), he jumps at the money and the chance. He is just barely making it financially, even though he was a gold medalist in the 84 Los Angeles Olympics, because America is obsessed both with its athletic greatness and with the illusion that athletes should, or can, be true amateurs even at an Olympic level. And he is starting to chafe at his brother’s authority over him.
Schultz is a terribly insecure and driven young man in spite of his great athletic success, and he falls under the spell of DuPont even as the other wrestlers in the camp realize he is a whacko. Soon, Mark and DuPont are taking cocaine together, and even though DuPont has taken the father role in the relationship, a strange kind of homoeroticism emerges, which causes great conflict for Schultz. It seemed to me that whether or not Schultz reciprocated those feelings, he had a right to feel betrayed, because DuPont is in a sense both his father and his boss, two roles that don’t dovetail nicely with that of concubine.
Eventually, Dave joins “Team Foxcatcher,” but Mark insists he is leaving. Dave agrees to stay if DuPont takes care of his brother financially after Mark leaves, and DuPont agrees, but resents Schultz wildly for so easily reasserting his role in Mark’s life. In what I thought was the best scene of the movie, Mark, out of shape from partying with the boss, loses a match and becomes so depressed he binges on room service and gains twelve pounds. Dave steps in and takes back his role as Mark’s father and coach. As he is putting Mark through the brutal workout he must endure to make weight in time for the next match, DuPont comes to see his boy, and Schultz refuses to let him see his brother. The scene shows the two talking through a pane of glass in a door, and you can’t hear what is said, but DuPont finally turns away.
And so DuPont is forced by Dave Schultz to face the fact that maybe it is only the money that makes him “great.” And even with that money (the only thing that keeps Dave at Foxcatcher, because he needs the money for his family, for his wife and kids), with that hold over Schultz, Dave is the more forceful and masterful of the two. Money could not buy him either loyalty or greatness, this DuPont, and it didn’t buy him freedom either, in the movie or real life. DuPont had been in jail for over ten years when he died in 2010.
© 2015 Mike Welch