Written by E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
Directed by Bennett Miller
Mark Schultz is three years out from his wrestling gold medal win at the ‘84 Olympics and is feeling the pain of being quickly forgotten. He’s also stuck in his brother, Dave’s shadow, who also won gold and is now working as a coach at Wexler University while preparing for a bid at the ‘88 Olympics. One day Mark receives a phone call from eccentric multimillionaire John Du Pont. Du Pont has decided he wants to support Mark and the Olympic wrestling team with hopes of another gold. He opines about the loss of “American greatness” but as time wears on it becomes clear Du Pont sees himself as the leader, coach, and comrade of these wrestlers. An unhealthy power dynamic develops between Mark and Du Pont that only worsens when Dave arrives to act as the “assistant coach.” It’s clear this arrangement is heading for disaster.
Foxcatcher is based on the true story of this very event, John Du Pont taking control of the US Olympic wrestling team just because he was rich. The film makes it very clear that economic class will be front and center through every second of this slow burn character drama. When we first meet Mark, he’s living in a decent but run-down apartment. He speaks at an elementary school to some older disinterested students and, when they are cutting his $20 check for visiting, they accidentally write “Dave” at first. Immediately we can see the distress happening all around Mark, his loss of identity as “Dave Schultz’s little brother” and the lack of financial support to make ends meet. He’s very driven to make it to the Seoul Olympics, but the nation is quick to forget the Olympic champions of the less lauded sports.
John Du Pont’s offer, allowing Mark to choose the members of Team Foxcatcher and be the unofficial coach, is something any wrestling in Mark’s shoes would jump at. He’s given a private chalet to live in and has bonuses handed out when he wins the World Championships. It’s clear to the audience and Mark that something is off about Du Pont. The way he speaks and holds himself is so calculated and distant. Part of that is his east coast aristocratic upbringing, but there’s an element of mental illness possibly due to the inbreeding of the wealthy class or simply antisocial development as a child. During one of the few moments of intimacy Du Pont and Mark share, the older man admits that the only friend he had as a child, the chauffeur’s son, turned out to be paid the entire time by his mother.
During the opening credits, archival footage of wealthy people engaging in fox hunts is played, and one of the scenes shows a woman on horseback and dressed up for the hunt trying to straighten up her son, also on a horse and dressed similarly. The young boy is drifting away from her and seems to be breaking whatever protocol is expected of him. We’re meant to imply that this is the relationship dynamic between Du Pont and his elusive mother. Mark stumbles across her one day while out for a run, watching over the training of her prize horses. After telling her son, that wrestling is a “low” sport she comes to the training facility to watch and Du Pont immediately beings playing at the coach. The wrestlers humor him even allowing him to “win” some little technique displays but everyone present sees through the facade, pained looks of embarrassment on their faces as Du Pont carries on his mockery.
Du Pont is obsessed with vague ideas about American grandeur and his prestige. Its clear wrestling is a combative gesture to his mother’s horses, but it also plays into Du Pont’s powerlessness. He uses his wealth to buy the attention and adulation of the local police who let him pilot the helicopters on meaningless exercises. The U.S. Army shows up at one point with a tank Du Pont has purchased and then he proceeds to pitch fit over because it doesn’t contain the 50-caliber gun he wanted. During the lead up to the Seoul Olympics, he hires a documentary crew to create a film about himself and his leadership for the wrestling team. The single time we witness the film being shown is with Du Pont by himself in his cold, empty mansion viewing it in silence. The film has the expected over produced orchestral score and voice-over claiming Du Pont as an American hero. Additionally, Mark is given a VHS on the history of the Du Pont family when he moves in and is expected to watch so he will understand the importance of this family.
Foxcatcher themes are centered around the myth of crumbling American greatness, often believed by those who are most directly responsible for any loss of prestige through the abuse of their power. Du Pont is a mentally ill man raised to think that he is better than almost everyone around him. His expectations of privilege are so distorted in the face of reality; he has no idea what America is anymore. Life for Du Pont is a bubble, protected behind gates and shielded by money. When he gets even the hint that his desires will not be met he lashes out, disproportionately violent and likely encouraged down this path by family and staff who should have known better. While Foxcatcher can be a slow creeping burn, it’s ideas and characters are profoundly relevant to America in the present.