Foxcatcher isn’t just simply an Olympic story with a tragically bizarre ending. It isn’t completely a crime story either. It’s about the people involved.
It’s 1987. Mark Schultz is an Olympic wrestling champion who’s about to do a talk at an elementary school substituting for his brother Dave who was expected to be the talker. The school gives him a small payment for his time. Dave is coach of the wrestling gym married with two small children and trainer of Mark. Although Dave tries to be a good mentor to Mark, you could tell something’s eating at him.
One day unsuspectingly, he’s greeted by John DuPont, heir to the E.I. DuPont family fortune. He offers to have Mark train at the Team Foxcatcher gym in Pennsylvania he created to promote wrestling. Mark agrees but John also wants Dave to coach. Dave turns it down because he has family commitments miles away. Despite that, Mark continues on with John coaching him even living in a DuPont guest house which John sometimes visits. The training pays off as Mark wins the World Championships later that year. John is even seen as a mentor to Mark and all the other wrestlers at Team Foxcatcher.
However something’s not right. John wants the wrestling trophies won by Team Foxcatcher to overtake one shelf of horseracing trophies his family have won over the years. Mark and John develop a friendship to the point John gets Mark to use cocaine. John even mentions his mother paid a boy to be his ‘friend’ when he was younger. His mother Jean who’s part of the DuPont legacy of horseracing is disapproving of his coaching wrestling feeling that it’s a ‘low’ sport. Then one day it happens. While Team Foxcatcher’s wrestlers take a day off to watch a Mixed Martial Arts event, John becomes furious especially when Mark insists Dave won’t join team Foxcatcher. John tells him he will get Dave by any means necessary.
Dave agrees to Team Foxcatcher where he even moves his wife and family over there. Mark however is going through self-esteem issues with the mental abusiveness of John and moves away to train for the 1988 Olympics. Just before the Olympic trials, John has his mother Jean escorted in her wheelchair to see what John has accomplished. She leaves in disgust after seeing John give his back to one of his students.
At the Olympic trials, you can tell something is bothering Mark. He loses his first match and in response cries, wrecks his room and goes on an eating binge. Dave is alarmed at discovering Mark in his condition in his hotel room and works to get him to lose weight in time for the weigh-in. As Mark competes on, he notices Dave prevent John from speaking to him. Mark wins the Olympic trials but both he and Dave notice John is absent. He returned home as his mother died. Mark lets Dave know he can’t stay with John and Team Foxcatcher after the Olympics and asks Dave to leave with him even though John created a promotional video of Team Foxcatcher with Dave asked to do a speech. Mark finishes sixth at the 1988 Olympics where he loses his last match 14-0. As he said, he leaves Team Foxcatcher for home while Dave agrees to remain training Team Foxcatcher in exchange for John giving Mark financial support.
It’s 1996. John watches the promotional video with the part of Mark’s speech about John. This would pave way to the depiction of the eventual murder. However the film ends showing what happened to Mark shortly after.
It’s funny how around Oscar time, it’s common to expect that most movies with big Oscar buzz would have some sort of political message or humanistic message. So it was quite natural for me to think that Foxcatcher might be a film with things to say about Olympic athletes or how they’re treated in the US. I don’t think it was but it did present a unique time in Olympic sport. Many older people remember that until the 80’s, you had to be a complete amateur in an Olympic sport. Even if you made a single penny off your sport, you were ineligible to compete at the Olympics. That all changed in the early 80’s when the IOC changed its constitution from allowing only ‘amateur’ athletes to allowing ‘eligible’ athletes to compete and it would be each sport’s respective federation decide who’s eligible. There were some sports like track and field, swimming and gymnastics that were the first to make the transition and the pay and sponsorship money was good albeit not the same level it is today. Wrestling was one of the sports to catch on later. In Mark’s time, wrestlers could not make a living off their sport unless you were also a coach like Dave. In fact I remember a quote from Olympic gymnast Bart Conner: “The big myth is that Olympic gold medalists can get rich off their gold medal. I know a lot of Olympic champions that are flipping burgers.” So it’s no wonder that Mark would find sponsorship from John DuPont and the state-of-the-art Team Foxcatcher wrestling gym a welcome relief.
I don’t even think it’s a statement about rich people in the United States. Sure, John was born into money as the DuPont family have a dynasty going all the way back to the 18th century. Sure, John appears to be spoiled living in the same gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere as his parents. Sure, John has the money to make his dream of being a great wrestling coach come true. Sure, John had a sheltered childhood where he was the youngest of four and had a ‘paid friend’ during his childhood. And sure, John has a mother with a superficial attitude as made evident in her comment of wrestling being a ‘low sport.’ However I don’t feel it’s about the American rich.
What I do feel the movie is to do about are the people. Yes, it’s a crime story but it’s also about the people. John appears to be a person who may have been belittled all his life and dreamed of being a successful wrestling coach or manager. He has written successful books on birds but wanted to become successful as a wrestling coach. This is especially hard for him since his family has a tradition of horse racing. Throughout the movie, we get a sense that he felt that something was missing in him. Even after hiring Dave as the coach, we see friction between the two as they’re both training and managing Mark. Sure, it’s common for two coaches on the same team to have disputes but the disputes make you wonder. In fact that scene where John is watching the video of himself promoting him and his gym just before the shooting may be sending the message he always felt underrespected. Maybe it was because he felt like the misfit of the family. Maybe it was because his family never knew or honored his achievements. We’ll never know. There’s no question he shows his mental illness, especially at the end, but it’s just a wonder if his inferiority complex is what caused him to shoot Dave.
The film is not just about John. It’s about Mark too. The 1984 Olympics was of him and Dave winning gold but the time since then was a struggle. Dave was able to marry, become a father and continue as an athlete by coaching at the same time. He was well to do. Mark was the one who struggled. He lived single in a shabby home, he worked a measly job, he received spare cash from school appearances, he was always living in the shadow of Dave. Even though Dave was never the type of brother that would try to make Mark feel inferior, You could tell it was bothering him in that training scene at the beginning where he gives Dave a bad hit. It was easy for him to see John’s offer as a breakthrough for him but a struggle as he was trying to create his own identity while Dave and John had coaching disputes over him. It seemed more like a threesome rather than him. Possibly even sensing Dave was becoming the apple of John’s eye rather than him. Even after his win of the World Championship, you could tell the whole thing would take a toll on him especially seeing how he had to purge himself at the Olympic trials and struggled to make the team. Eventually it did take its toll right at the Seoul Olympics with his sixth-place finish and the threesome ended there. You can easily understand why when Mark moved out, he wanted to move without turning back.
The highlight of the film was the performance of Steve Carell. In fact even his biggest fans would be surprised to see Steve looking different and acting completely different from the way they’ve always known Steve to act. He embodied John DuPont well in terms of physicality and his mental illness but he also made us feel John’s feelings of inferiority which definitely added to the film. The film also has Channing Tatum’s best acting ever. He also embodies the character of Mark well in terms of his desire to succeed and in terms of his insecurities. Although the film focuses more on the characters of Mark and John than on Dave, it’s Mark Ruffalo’s performance that gives added dimension to a person who is both a coach and a father and tries to do the right thing but ends up an unsuspecting victim in the end. Even supporting performances from Sienna Miller as Dave’s wife and Vanessa Redgrave as John’s mother were done great despite being less than what they should be.
The directing of Bennett Miller was also impressive as he focused on both the story and insight into the people involved in the story. The script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman was also good in taking us to the right events even though it did feel slow at times. Even there, I think they were trying to make a murder story that didn’t just simply tell of the events but also give us portrayals of the characters. It’s not to say they haven’t experienced friction about it. There was a story that Mark felt the film made it look like John had a homosexual attraction to him. I didn’t notice it. Besides I later learned John was married for the first and only time at 45 and the divorce occurred just before he met Mark.
Foxcatcher is more than a murder story. It’s also a portrayal of the people involved in both their desires and their insecurities. Often it did feel more like the film was about who than what.