Saturday, January 31, 2015


One of the things about "based upon a true story" narratives with which I always struggle is the extent to which the text accurately reflects the events upon which it is based. At the same time, of course, it behooves one on occasion to practically forget the origin of such a text and simply treat it in isolation. That being said, the cursory research I've done suggests that 'Foxcatcher', a film in the public eye at the moment, has a variable relationship to reality: fairly close in the broad strokes, divergent in the details. It's just something to bear in mind. In any event the film's basically a tale of an Olympic gold medallist wrestler being taken under the wing of an eccentric billionaire, with a rather sinister twist resulting in a right proper bollocking of the American Dream and all that guff.
At first I thought this was in some way or another a "sport film," but it isn't really. It's not so much about wrestling, Olympic or otherwise, as it is about alienation, possessiveness and power. Mark Schultz is a gold medallist recruited to lead a wrestling team in the late Eighties by John du Pont, one of that peculiar breed of American quasi-aristocrats who lives on a huge estate in the middle of the Pennsylvanian countryside. Despite the enormous opportunity that du Pont's wealth brings to Schultz, it's fairly obvious that the entire scenario is a contrived effort on du Pont's part to inject some kind of meaning into his life, believing that wrestling success will bring glory to himself and somehow be a part of the revitalisation of the American nation and subconsciously, perhaps, cure his obvious loneliness and the meaninglessness of his life. All of this ambition is undercut by the sparse, tense screenplay, and heavy use of silence, as characters unable or uninterested in expressing themselves talk at each other with little communication or understanding.
The other effective contrast in the film is in the relative family situation of these two characters: Mark lives in the largely self-imposed shadow of his older brother Dave, equally successful in sport but also with a clearly more fulfilling personal life, career prospects and a more amiable nature. Du Pont has a far more strained relationship with his mother, who is interested in the traditionally aristocratic pursuit of horse rearing and disdains her son's goals, but has also clearly raised him in an incredibly isolated world. Mark and du Pont both have absent parent figures, but the point is clearly made that Dave has overcome this situation, while neither Mark or du Pont have. Mark is a far more sympathetic character than du Pont, struggling while mired in an unhealthy culture of success at all costs and emotional repression. Du Pont, by contrast, comes from a far more privileged position than Mark, but spends his wealth in the pursuit of unearned personal glory. We see his only wrestling competitor seemingly paid off for throwing a match, and late in the film after making a deal with Wrestling USA he produces, in probably one of the film's more outwardly absurd moments, a hyperbolic and self-indulgent documentary praising his role as nominal "coach" of the wrestling team, despite his incompetence and lack of real involvement beyond as a source of money and connections.
The outcome of this is to argue, in my view, a depiction of the United States and the "American dream" as bound up with violence, decadence and delusions of grandeur. The first two acts of the film at least are set in the late Eighties, and one cannot avoid noticing, for example, the inanely grinning face of Ronald Reagan's portrait in the school at which Mark speaks at the beginning, or the single reference du Pont makes in his first meeting with Mark to the Soviet Union. The emotionally unhealthy nature of the two main characters, their occasional codependence and their instability all symbolise an argument that "winning" the Cold War proved virtually nothing about America. Similarly, du Pont's love of firearms and working military hardware, as well as the fortune the family made through manufacturing gunpowder, are suggestive of how compromised this kind of success is, depending as it does upon destruction and deadly conflict - we are informed of how vital the family's industry was to the Union in the Civil War. Du Pont's own absurd self-perception as "America's Golden Eagle" argues that the Dream endears itself largely to those incapable of finding satisfaction elsewhere in life. It is the American Dream as a desperate pursuit of glory, regardless of true merit, built on money made through blood and hoarded in the very kinds of palaces of which the United States was supposedly meant to be a rejection. It's a not that it's a Dream without family or friendship or love, but rather a substitute for these things sought by people who have never been introduced to the satisfactions of life which can't be bought.
"Foxcatcher" is a bleak film and this is reflected in its contemplative pace, limited dialogue and small cast of characters. Mark Ruffalo seems to be in his element as the affable and thus inevitably doomed Dave, Channing Tatum subverts the meathead roles in which he's typecast as the brooding Mark and while Steve Carrell doesn't in my opinion seem actually too far removed from his usual roles as du Pont, simply substituting humour for being unsettlingly caught up in his own world, the character is in my opinion successful because it's so difficult to tell what's going on in his head: whether he's an eccentric but harmless sponsor, or a completely deluded psychotic with no self-awareness and a completely skewed system of values. We of course find out in the end (hint: it's the latter) but the fact that the film withholds and teases this information for so long rather substantially contributes to its emphasis of the seemingly benign but in fact incredibly problematic nature it perceives at the heart of the American Dream.

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