The Rich Are Another Country
There are times when not being American helps you take an outsider’s viewpoint on a true story; I came to ‘Foxcatcher’ knowing nothing about the peculiar life of John ‘Golden Eagle’ du Pont (played here by an unrecognisable Steve Carrell), from one of the richest families in the US, but I imagine a lot of Americans are now familiar with the story.
The facts are simple; Olympic gold wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is lured away from his coach and brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to go and train with du Pont for Seoul, swapping a lonely low-income life for an eerie, moneyed existence in du Pont’s specially constructed training camp. Du Pont’s family made their money from ammunition and chemicals, and the heirs live in emotionally stillborn, isolated splendour. The mother (Vanessa Redgrave) favours equestrianism, regards wrestling as ‘a low sport’, and knows all about her son’s latent enjoyment of its physicality. The first obvious question is; what does John du Pont actually get from the relationship with Mark, his lead wrestler? A Mishima-like homoerotic surge from having militia and musclemen around him, prestige at the thought of ‘coaching’ a team to national greatness (he was a useless coach) or merely a desperate appeal for approval in the eyes of his mother?
All three answers are clearly correct; the result is a useless, poisoned life of inherited wealth, the time passed acting out power fantasies which eventually come to poison all those within reach, including the inarticulate, angry Schultz and his decent brother. It’s a defiantly strange, measured tale of the predatory relationship between rich and poor that starts like ‘Raging Bull’ and gradually morphs into something approaching ‘Behind the Candelabra’. The vampiric, unpredictable du Pont uses his wealth to provide himself with a fabricated persona of greatness that’s entirely unearned, unlike his wrestling star, who has risen to fame entirely on his own merit, punishing himself for any perceived sign of failure.
Director Bennett Miller uses static distance shots and chilly, long blue-tinged takes to reveal a world where the precinct of privilege is a prison and nationalism an instrument of torture. He unfolds the changing relationship from Mark’s point of view, and you can see why only when you read the actual facts in the story separately. The problem Miller clearly had to overcome is that the reality is a dozen times more colourful and alarming than what we see here, but if it had been presented in the film the story would have had no dramatic tension. You may wish to Google ‘childhood accident’, ‘tank’, ‘police car’, ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘siege’ in the context of the film, all of which reference more bizarre elements of the story not glimpsed in this icy forensic examination of the rich and strange.
By avoiding the real-life car crash of lunatic events, Miller shows admirable restraint, but I wonder if there’s another equally enjoyable film to be made out of the more lurid material. I also wonder if others have seen a different cut – there are review mentions of scenes that don’t seem to have survived. If Miller’s frosted direction is simply too reserved and exemplary, perhaps the only alternative approach to such an uncomfortable subject would have been to reveal more earlier and create something outrageously lurid.
This is the reverse depiction of a dream team riding to success. Instead we’re presented with a spectacle of US patriotism in decline, rotted from within and dragging everything else down with it; not one for the multiplexes, then. Tatum’s performance is delicate and nuanced, Carrell’s simply astounding – disturbing and unpredictable (you’ll come to dread him tapping on the windows at night), and the director’s distance from his subject removes clear emotional response. I mean that in a good way; it’s one you may be arguing about for days. I can’t imagine British cinema producing anything this remarkable and controlled.