Foxcatcher chronicles the tragic partnership of multi-millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and brothers Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), Olympic medalist in wrestling from the 1980 and 1984 games. Recently, the real Mark Schultz has gone to Twitter and Facebook to condemn director Bennett Miller’s depiction of suggested homoeroticism between Mark and John. I’m not suggesting that this undercurrent doesn’t exist within the film – after all, wrestling in itself is homoerotic – but this trope is not the meat of the film.
Rather, the thrust of the film – at least I didn’t use it as a pun – focuses on the juxtaposition between earned and privileged. As depicted in the film, Du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to the DuPont chemical fortune is an isolated mama’s boy, confined on a vast expanse of land knows as Foxcatcher Farms. His mother, who we only see a few times, lives on the farm, but has a catalytic impact on John’s personality. He is at one friendly and free-spirited and in the next acting out in such a way that begs for his mother’s attention and recognition.
His interest in Olympic wrestling is genuine, but his mother thinks it “low.” When she appears in the gymnasium, John calls all the men in a semi-circle with a break to aid his mother’s sightline and then pretends to instruct the wrestlers. What he offers is pedestrian and unbelievable. And maybe she recognizes that he has no true wrestling skill – though he professes to be the Olympic team’s trainer and coach – or maybe she’s just indifferent and disappointed that he’s not out fox hunting.
Either interpretation is fine, but both lead to the investigation of privilege. At one point, John forces Mark to introduce him to an audience of people. As Mark rehearses, he repeats that John is an ornithologist, philatelist, and philanthropist – as well as a writer, an entrepreneur, a wrestling coach, and a trainer. Yet, he hardly seems trained in any of this as the film goes on. At one point, John also enters and “over-50” wrestling tournament, spars a bit with an equally as languid wrestler and wins the title, though the film intimates that this victor was purchased.
As the U.S. team’s coach and trainer, he hardly shows them anything, preferring to leave Mark in charge of training and then ultimately convincing Mark’s brother Dave to take on the role. Here, there is also the common theme of brotherly rivalry that runs throughout.
That aside, the privilege afforded John, one that allows him to interlope into many roles because of his capital, does not provide him with the skillset to handle these many roles, but his obvious financial advantages bunk up his perception to believe that it does.
In a way, it seems that John’s desire to coach the wrestling team is a proxy for his resentment toward his mother and the sheltered life that she created around him. Speaking to Mark, John notes that Olympic wrestling is about more than just a medal, it’s about the “virtues required to attain it.” Both Mark and Dave become a surrogate for John’s desires to attain something without having it handed to him. Ironically, he fails to do the attaining. Rather, he uses the money that he seems to reject to employee athletes that can attain the “something” that John is missing.
Throughout, the performances by Ruffalo, Tatum, and Carell carry the film to it unfortunate, tragic ending. Ruffalo is nearly unrecognizable, Tatum proves that he has emotional range, and Carrel is creepily sedate as the rather laconic and eerie John DuPont.