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.

43 Comments on this Post

  1. Sounds great and in line for a ton of nominations however I get the feeling from the review that it doesn’t sound like it will WIN the awards as many of us expect.

  2. Bryce Forestieri

    3 for 3 for Miller, whose, even with all the Oscar nominations and critical acclaim, two previous, and specially MONEYBALL, are still much underappreciated. Not out until November, right? So I’ll probably not read much besides Sasha’s take. A surefire Oscar contender. Best Director included?

    Question: Would you say Miller is the best American director who started his feature career in the new millennium? Without examining at all, I probably think so….

  3. Igor Sousa

    I don’t think so Bryce. I’d say that the films he’s worked benefited from great scripts rather than direction. I’d say James Gray and Jeff Nichols are more impresive directors than Bennet Miller.

  4. Jeremy

    Bennett has a very classical Hollywood mastery of filmmaking, like Clint Eastwood. Its not showy and stylish, but he’s got such a great control over the tone and the rhythm of a movie. Psychological motivations of his characters become clear through Miller’s framing of them on a couch, or their position in a room, or the way he focuses on a foreground object. He doesn’t EXCITE people like PTA or Fincher, but he’s 2-for-2 in great movies from where I’m sitting, and all signs point to this being another big success for him.

  5. Nic V

    Steve Carell has been slowly moving from the basic date night movie into more serious and complex roles. I thought his turn in Crazy Stupid Love was probably a peak in his career. Then I saw The Way Way Back where he plays a rather dark character and I had a bit of hard time relating to Carell in that performance. Not because the performance was bad but because it was not what I’d become used too. When I was looking at 2014 films and making notes Carell got my attention in this film and I made a note of “potential Oscar nominee”. But not only for Carell but for the film as well. It will interesting to see how this plays out down the road, as to whether the Academy will reject Carell because they have a perscribed idea of what Carell should represent on screen as compared to the work he’s been doing of late. I think Carell is succeeding where many “comic” actors have failed. As he should because he’s quite talented.

  6. Loody

    @NIC V there is no way the Academy ignores Carell for his work in FOXCATCHER. The only question is whether they decide to GIVE him the Oscar for the performance.

  7. Pepper

    Some of these reviews are making me wonder if this could be Ruffalo’s year, even if the film itself is too dark for Oscar recognition.

  8. It got a rotten review from Slant Magazine. It means Foxcatcher is most definitely a great film that will score many Oscar nominations.

  9. Robert A.

    “There is no way the Academy ignores Carell for his work in FOXCATCHER. The only question is whether they decide to GIVE him the Oscar for the performance.”

    To be fair, though, weren’t people saying the same thing about Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon back in 1999? With that said, I expect Foxcatcher will be a stronger overall film than Man on the Moon, which should work in Carell’s favor.

  10. Philipp

    This review is, once again, a delightful read.

  11. Bryce Forestieri

    I’m dying to see this film if not only to say more about his style (now throughout three features) that I can’t promise won’t sound like grand statements; something I was meaning to do more about McQueen last year before we started predominantly talking about less important things. Having revisited CAPOTE and MONEYBALL over this past year and based on Sasha’s review one thing is clear, great multifaceted love and fascination for the country.

  12. Great article Sasha !

  13. Jacob

    Nic V, I would agree with the possibility that the Academy would reject Carell because this isn’t how they know him, but I think that because the role is so transformative that won’t be the case. Sasha said he completely disappears into the role, and he’s barely recognizable, which will help him. He’s not Michael Scott-like in the movie, he’s a completely different person. I’ve always admired his ability and I think this is the movie that will take Steve Carell from being just Michael Scott to being a respectable dramatic and comedic actor.

  14. I can’t believe a man got away with probation for raping a 3 year old all because he might not do well in jail…………. I fucking hate the justice system

  15. Bennett

    I don’t think Academy will reject Steve Carell for being Steve Carell. They love Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill so why not extend this love to a way better comedian who’s been working hard the past years and, oh, has a previous snub under his belt (Little Miss Sunshine)?

    I think it depends much more on the film itself and how the studio will sell it to audiences and within the industry.

  16. Sounds like the perfect movie for the Bryan Singer, men-who-exploit-younger men era.

  17. Bob Burns

    thanks for writing about the ideas within the film. very good read.

    the very rich can be very scary.

  18. Nic V

    Let me make one thing clear I think the transformation that Carell has gone through from Date Night to Crazy Stupid Love to The Way Way Back is nothing less that brilliant. I would hope that the Academy would do for Carell what they haven’t done for say Carey or in some regards Steve Martin. Martin went from the way out there comic to some quite fine mature performances and was ignored. I don’t think the Academy can ignore Carell but I also won’t be surprised if they do. I am a big fan of Carell and even more now with his move into dramatic roles because I actually didn’t like him in The Way Way Back. Not that I didn’t like his performance I didn’t like that he became the character that was written. So when Sasha says that he blends into this character I don’t find that hard to believe and I would suspect many Academy members may not find it hard to believe either. It was smart that we got a sense of Carell’s diversity by seeing The Way Way Back prior to Foxcatcher. I’m going to stay away from the Carell/Cooper/Hill thing because honestly I think Carell has more talent that either Cooper or Hill.

  19. Jerry Grant

    Good question, Bryce. I think Bennett Miller is a good shot for best American director who started this millennium, and certainly a better choice than Jeff Nichols (James Gray?). It’s an interesting dividing line, because figures like Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, and Christopher Nolan miss the 2000 cut off very slightly.

    Right now I see Bennett Miller and JC Chandor as our two most interesting and promising new American directors.

  20. Jerry Grant

    Chris Nolan is British, my bad. Other reasonable choices would be Jason Reitman and Ben Affleck.

  21. Bryce Forestieri

    Jerry, that group of filmmakers that you mention, and who miss the mark for just one or a couple of years, exposes the triviality of the exercise as not much more than a “stat”, albeit an interesting one. I do part ways with you by considering Jeff Nichols up there with Bennett Miller at the very top of those who got started this side of the divide, both well above Affleck, Reitman, Chandor. Having said that, all their follow-ups have for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are enticing premises. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR; MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN despite Adam Sandler; and the one we have to wait the longest for thanks to stupid MAN OF STEEL sequel, Ben Affleck’s LIVE BY NIGHT which reunites him with the Boston crime drama. By God, why did he ever want to be Batman?

    None of these, though, water my mouth more than the prospect FOXCATCHER, and Nichols’ “most grounded” film to date, the “sci-fi chase” MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, supposed to be in the best tradition of Carpenter’s STARMAN. I was hoping more -any!- reviewers of NOAH would make a comparison with Nichol’s TAKE SHELTER as another modern interpretation on the passage, but…sigh

  22. ones to watch
    Rian Johnson
    Sarah Polley
    Ryan Coogler
    Duncan Jones

    Todd Field qualifies?

  23. Jerry Grant

    They all have great things on dock. I don’t mean to give off the impression that I don’t like Jeff Nichols–“Take Shelter” was my #7 that year, and you’re definitely right about the biblical allegories, evoking also distinctly 21st century apocalyptic moods (economic and climate-related). I liked “Mud,” but probably not as much as you. I suspect Chandor will go farther than Nichols, but that’s only a suspicion and maybe based on my own personal preferences for Margin Call and All Is Lost–either way, Nichols and Chandor actually have a lot in common in their thematic interests, timeliness, and their exceptional directing. They both are thematically more embedded in the 21st century than Bennett Miller, in fact.

  24. If we’re going with promising American directors, I would pick Ryan Coogler, J.C. Chandor, Jeff Nichols, Bennett Miller, James Ponsoldt, Derek Cianfrance, and Debra Granik at the very least.

  25. Oren Moverman
    David Ayer

  26. And, I’ll stand up for Zack Snyder.

  27. Cary Fukunaga

  28. Bryce Forestieri

    Bennett is a romantic. I want to see this new film first before I set off.

    Al, aye and so will I! (Re: Snyder)

    Abrams? I love his first STAR TREK and two thirds of SUPER 8, but not much more. Much like Snyder, he’s superb at casting.

    Ayer, Moverman, Polley, Coogler, Granik, Jones, Johnson, Ponsoldt, oh I do got my eye on them!

    Where in the world is Todd Field? Breaks my heart that man hasn’t made a movie in eight years. Did he become a Carthusian or does he not give a shit anymore about the rest of us?

  29. Bryce Forestieri

    Oh man, Fukunaga. YES. Oh my.

  30. Bryce, you probably know, there’s a really entertaining romantic novel primarily set in 1960s Italy called Beautiful Ruins. The story spans 4 or 5 decades. Last we heard, Todd Field is attached to direct that.

    Would have been great if they had gone forward with Todd Field’s adaptation of Blood Meridian — but he’s also rumored (for two years already) to be interested in another ultrabloody western novel called Creed of Violence.

    Those are two of the best books I read last year. Sasha read Beautiful Ruins last year too. It has Hollywood elements that I won’t reveal, because you’ll have more fun discovering on your own.

  31. I really need to re-watch Little Children. Hell, even In the Bedroom.

    Bryce, I agree, Abrams and Snyder are great at casting. As for Super 8, do you think it got a little campy at the end?

  32. I just really really hope that Foxcatcher doesn’t fall to the same fate as The Master and Inside Llewyn Davis, where they were considered early front-runners, or at least early contenders, and then….

  33. I just thought about the movies that held over until the following year, and then either didn’t win Best Picture, or wasn’t even nominated.

    Gangs of New York – 2001 (I’d like the think this could have beat A Beautiful Mind) / 2002 (Lost to Chicago)

    The Road – 2008 (Possibly a BP nom) / 2009 – Nada

    Shutter Island – 2009 (Possibly a BP nom) / 2010 – Nada

    The Monuments Men – 2013 (Unclear, maybe a BP nom?) / 2014 – No chance

    Foxcatcher – 2014…. (we’ll see)

  34. And then there’s the oposite. What IF The Wolf of Wall Street HAD been held over until this year??….

    I’d like to think it would have a decent chance. Last year nothing was going to beat 12 Years a Slave, or even Gravity. Nothing.

  35. Bryce Forestieri

    I haven’t read Beautiful Ruins but been aware of it since you and Sasha raved about it; time to fast track it.

    Al, not campy, and the shift was expected, just disappointingly generic and unimaginative — from the design of the alien to the ‘talk’. I do love all the kids stuff before the mayhem though, when they’re making the movie, etc. Not altogether similar, but ATTACK THE BLOCK succeeds in those areas SUPER 8 let me down.

  36. Bryce Forestieri

    Fow now, I’ll just go to bed thinking of who could Field cast as The Judge…

  37. Max von Sydow as The Judge?
    James Cromwell as The Judge?
    David Lynch as The Judge?

  38. Cameron

    Nick Cassavetes?

  39. Radich

    Great review, Sasha. I’m really looking forward to this one.

  40. Andre

    This was my most anticipated film of 2013 and it has been firmly placed as my most anticipated film of 2014.

    These raves make me all the more anxious to see it.

    Re: best American directors since 2000; I would place Bennett as a VERY close runner-up to Shane Carruth.

    “Upstream Color” is, in my opinion, the greatest film to come out within my lifetime (and my #5 film of all time) and “Primer” is also a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking.

    Having said that, “Capote” is ALSO one of my favourites of the aughts and “Moneyball” is the very definition of what a smart, family-driven crowd pleaser should be. It is also masterfully done; this is what commercial adult dramas should aspire to be.

    The story behind this film has fascinated me for ages. The fact that such a talented director is depicting it drives me mad with excitement. It even lets me look past my lack of respect for Channing Tatum as an actor!!

  41. Andre

    I meant “family-oriented” regarding “Moneyball”.

    Sorry.

    Also, all my best, Ryan! :)

  42. Andre, thank you. I haven’t forgotten that I owe you an email.

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