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Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller’s Third Great Film about the American Dream

“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” ― George Carlin

When John Steinbeck wryly observed that most Americans disdained socialism as if they were “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” whose ship had yet to come in, he had no idea just how many millions of hard working self-made millionaires the country would someday spawn — how many would actually attain that American dream. In a strange reversal, much of American disdain is now aimed at millionaires, specifically toward those who believe this world is designed for them, those who believe they have a right to take whatever they want whenever they want it. In 2014 you don’t have to look very far to find these men – they are everywhere. Our government props them up, bends over backwards to cater to them, and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves.

And why wouldn’t we feel shafted? We see them get bonuses after fleecing the American people out of their hard-earned income. We see them spray pesticides while avoiding any prosecution for those crimes, even when they kill people all over the world. All the while the American people struggle to get by on minimum wage, fighting obstructions that mean to block our participation in elections, watching democracy sold to the highest bidder by a Supreme Court that hands all the power to those with enough money to buy the airwaves. All of this just scratches the surface.

In Foxcatcher we meet John Du Pont, heir to a family fortune who has his entire way of life bought and paid for — every win, every success at every school, even his friends. Du Pont, portrayed in a career-changing turn by Steve Carell, is a desperately lonely man. A man who is the walking embodiment of the notion that money can’t buy happiness, nor can it buy love, nor can it buy admiration or real success, particularly for someone whose wealth is entirely inherited. With so many self-made billionaires rising up from the ashes of working-class Americans, their offspring are left to dangle from the edge of that wealth with nothing much to work for, live for, strive for. Nothing left to achieve for themselves.

Du Pont’s interest in wrestling was supposed to be that acheivement he made for himself. Living under the shadow of his arrogant mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, Du Pont kind of fumbles around while people let him succeed because he’s so phenomenally wealthy you don’t even get near him unless you’re ready to play softball. This point is driven home when Mark Schultz (an excellent Channing Tatum) tells Du Pont that his brother (another excellent Mark Ruffalo) can’t be bought. That part of the relationship dynamic will tangle an insidious noose around their necks and ultimately lead to tragedy.

The story is pulled from the real-life headlines — a murder committed by Du Pont, so know this going in. The film’s heat is set to low simmer as you head for the climax. Bennett Miller, three films so far under his belt, saves his best usually for the last few minutes of his movies and Foxcatcher is no exception. That is what makes Miller’s work so compelling. You wait, and you wait, and you wait and then it pays off. The pay-off here is more subtle than you might expect, with none of the uplift Moneyball had, nor the closure that Capote gave. But it is far more haunting because this is a story that doesn’t have closure and it doesn’t have uplift. Lives are ruined. Period.

What drives John Du Pont’s obsession with Mark is a bit of a mystery. There seems to be physical attraction there, perhaps even love. But Du Pont doesn’t really know how to have relationships. All he knows how to do is buy and control then pretend as though he has made something with his own hands. He knows somewhere deep inside that he doesn’t, not really. That eats away at him. All he sees is power. His sense of entitlement has swollen to the point where he wants people to think of him as a great man, a ruler, a leader, a golden eagle.

Carell will likely be the focus of much of Foxcatcher’s praise. He utterly disappears inside Du Pont, presenting a dark and mostly unlikable lead. His mere presence is unsettling. But his cold, heartless demeanor — literally, this is a man no one likes — is offset by the other two leads, the extremely likable Ruffalo and Tatum. Tatum challenges himself here, unearthing that vulnerability we’ve always known he had in him but haven’t seen much of in the roles he’s played. He punishes himself for allowing his own integrity to be bought and sold. His counterpoint is Ruffalo who gives the film its solid moral center. You do good work, you don’t get bought off, you stand up for what’s right. Then you get shot dead with no warning.

What does this say about American culture overall? If you want to go digging you can find that indictment, as I have done here. That is how my own life experience shapes the way I see this film. But you could see it as simply a story that probes an unhealthy relationship with a psychotic man. You have these options because Miller has chosen, as he often does, to leave it up to you. It bears repeating that it isn’t common in American film to see this kind of ambiguity.

Bennett Miller seems unable to make a bad film. With his third, Foxcatcher, he dives more deeply into the collective American psyche with this portrait of a crime that has yet to be fully solved. What happened is not up for debate. Why it happened remains a mystery. Was all of that cocaine they snorted a catalyst? Was Du Pont a paranoid schizophrenic? Did it have anything to do with repressed sexuality? Was it about control? Or, did he do it simply because he thought he could get away with it.

There is much more to the story that the film reveals, including the financial settlement by Dave Schultz’s window who sued du Pont for wrongful death. That is indeed the flip side of all powerful wealth. While du Pont was sentenced as “guilty but insane” and given a sentence of up to 30 years, he never spent that sentence in prison but rather in a mental health facility. 13 years after his conviction he was found dead in his bed. By contrast, because he was so wealthy the natural response when he is convicted of a crime is to sue.

In 2008, Robert H. Richards IV, another heir to the du Pont fortune, admitted to raping his daughter when she was three years old. He was put on probation but received no jail time. The judge stated that he would not fare well in prison. Indeed, it is a different world for the 1%.

With the freedom of expression financier Megan Ellison provides, we are treated once again to a film without any outside pressure to dumb it down. Ellison is an avenging angel, of sorts. Working to fix some of the problems that plague modern day Hollywood. She is the reverse example of someone like du Pont. Her vast inherited wealth has motivated her to support the arts, which serves as a meaningful counter to the film itself.

Echoes of the American dream have obsessed director Bennett Miller. That is the dream that promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Capote looked at the artist obsessed with story. Moneyball looks at the retired baseball star reaching for a longshot moment of glory. Now Foxcatcher – the third one word title – is about grasping for something that isn’t really there – achievement without hard work, a room full of trophies that were bought and paid for, the self-centered satisfaction of destroying another life just because you want to. That in itself is a sick dream fulfilled in the darkest places of the human heart that we don’t like to admit might be there. But, for most of us, if dark urges exist we don’t feel entitled to act on them.

In a rigged game, where the fox is let out of the cage so the privileged participants can pretend to really be hunting, who’s to say that killing the fox wasn’t fair.