The gorgeously composed gloom sets in early in Foxcatcher and never really lets up. The film dramatizes the star-crossed convergence of fraternal Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo) and John du Pont (Steve Carell), the chemical company heir and precariously wealthy dilettante. Du Pont wanted to lead men, preferably handsome, buff, all-American, gladiatorial men, so he set about putting together a wrestling team, first enlisting Mark, setting him up in a chalet on the grounds of his vast Philadelphia fortress, and then charging this younger, lonelier, psychically frail brother with the task of luring the older one, a well-adjusted family man. If you’ve heard anything about this story, which begins in the ’80s and ends in the ’90s, you know that du Pont became increasingly disappointed and deranged, and you know that things end tragically.
Does Foxcatcher make sense of this tragedy? I don’t think that’s it’s purpose, and in any event Ruffalo is the only one whose character and performance invites us inside. Tatum does a superb job of burying Mark Schultz’s desperation deep inside his hulking frame, and Carell’s celebrated transformation into the condescending, rifle-sight-beaked, self-appointed coach is likewise an entirely external performance, chilling and opaque. But also fascinating. Directed by Bennett Miller and written by E Max Frye and Dan Futterman (who scripted Miller’s Capote), Foxcatcher seethes at the edges, letting slip doses of jet-black, deadpan comedy while using its true-crime horror story as something of a parable about old money and the sociopathic mindset that wealth’s insulation cultivates. Du Pont is clearly deeply unhappy, and when a man possessing this level of entitlement gets unhappy the destruction of other people’s lives means little.
Foxcatcher is Miller’s fourth film, following the documentary The Cruise and the features Capote and Moneyball. All these films are grounded in true stories, which is a smart way of utilizing Miller’s talent for atmospherics and suggesting metaphor without having to scrutinize plot mechanics: once we accept that these things really happened, we can focus our attention on what they might mean to us. I spoke with Miller during the Toronto International Film Festival. He is a very thoughtful interviewee.
VUE WEEKLY: When does history lend itself to story? What was it about the story of these three men that suggested itself as a viable work of fact-based fiction?
BENNETT MILLER: When you become fascinated by a story, there’s something about that story that’s deeper than its specifics. It acquires the qualities of metaphor or fable. If I have an undying curiosity about a true story I accept that what resonates is bigger than the story itself. Capote is more than a guy writing a book. Foxcatcher is more than this very eccentric, disturbing, sensationalistic story. I’ve never been involved in a situation that resembled this story in any way, yet it felt familiar. The story’s dynamics did not themselves feel like eccentric themes; they felt like the big themes of today, to do with class, entitlement and family.
VW: Patriotism is everything to du Pont, yet his patriotism cuts against so much of what we think of as the American character. He’s anything but down to earth, a man of the people. Have you known someone like du Pont?
BM: I’ve met some. And you see them in the public arena. You see du Ponts in political campaigns, casting spells, making appeals made to the general public, stirring up nationalistic sentiment for private gain.
VW: Something people often cite as a difference between Canadians and Americans is our relative paucity of patriotism. Watching Foxcatcher, it does make you wonder if the patriotism on display, which may or may not be a particularly American patriotism, isn’t just a beard for some fundamental sense of inadequacy. Du Pont’s patriotism seems grounded in a desire to lead men because he cannot be the man he’d like to be. What do you think? Is there anything genuine in du Pont’s patriotism?
BM: I’d like to encourage you to write about that perspective. I wouldn’t contradict it. I don’t believe du Pont is so absolutely Machiavellian that he dissociates from his banter. It’s his refuge. Du Pont’s father split when he was two. Mark Schultz’s father split when he was very young. These are men without fathers who are obsessed with father issues—founding-father issues. In that sense I think this patriotism is genuine.
VW: Do you consider yourself a patriot?
BM: I begin to drown in the complications. I find myself very moved by the story of how our constitution came to be, the fact that people risked and sacrificed their lives for freedoms we enjoy. They profoundly altered the course of civilization. But patriotism, like anything, like religion, can be exploited for ill purpose. I’m reluctant to sign up and belong to any kind of movement or party. I do feel that there’s much that’s worth appreciating and perpetuating. We’ve got quite a bit to evolve out of, too. Your observation about where this aggressiveness comes from and what it belies is what makes America so complicated.
VW: The physicality of Foxcatcher is really interesting. All three leads each have incredibly distinctive gaits and postures. You could almost shoot them in silhouette and still tell the story.
BM: The actors have to take all the credit for that. It so happens that those characters possess those qualities. There’s plenty of archival video of all of them. Not only do we have the finished documentaries that du Pont made of himself, we have the outtakes as well—it would have been hard to make this movie without them. Channing and Ruffalo steeped themselves in these individuals, in this bizarre subculture of wrestlers and wrestling. They studied how wrestlers carried themselves, how they related to each other. It was the same with du Pont. Steve was able to study him. When the first make-up tests were done I was in Pittsburgh and he was in Los Angeles, so they had to send me videos. Steve was in full makeup and a sweatsuit, jogging around the room. It was the first time I saw Steve begin to inhabit this physicality. It sent a chill.
VW: Given this abundance of archival material, did you ever consider filming this story as documentary?
BM: Yes. But by the time I finished reading the first article about this story I knew I wanted to make it as a narrative feature. I knew this could be a phenomenal documentary, but one person who was an incredible support in this whole process was Nancy Schultz, Dave Schultz’s widow, and she’s undertaking a documentary project. She supported us and we’re here to support her any way we can. I think her film is going to be more about Dave than Mark.
VW: Does Foxcatcher have a protagonist? I feel like there are moments where any of the three main characters hold the centre. I’m very interested in that triangle, because it keeps you off-balance—like pretty much everything in the film.
BM: With this film I don’t subscribe to any conventional narrative structure, but if I were to look at it fresh, I would say that it’s Mark’s story. He begins the film by appearing before a class of elementary school kids, talking about the virtues required to obtain a gold medal. He ends it climbing into a cage for this carnivalesque spectacle of bloodsport. Metaphorically, I was interested in his arc.
VW: All your films thus far are grounded in true stories. Do you see true stories as a career-length investment?
BM: I don’t know what I want to do from one thing to the next. I think I’d be just as happy to take on a totally fictional narrative project. And at some point something’s going to happen and they’re not going to let me make narrative movies anymore.
VW: You don’t think so? You’re doing pretty well so far.
BM: I am. So far I feel very fortunate. But, historically, that’s what happens. You get your window. So long as they let me continue to get away with it, I’ll keep doing it. But part of me looks forward to the day when I lose my licence to practice and can go back to making documentaries.
VW: Is there someone whose career trajectory you look to as a model?
BM: Not at all. [Long pause] OK. Abraham Lincoln.
VW: His career didn’t end so well.
BM: I think it ended perfectly. He did what he needed to do. And then he was out.
Directed by Bennett Miller