As they did for the Toronto Film Festival, film writers Fariha Roísín and Sara Black McCulloch are covering the New York Film Festival this year as a series of conversations about the festival and its programming. The first dispatch includes Foxcatcher, starring Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carell in a dramatic role.
Fariha: Hello people of Gawker, Sara and I are back this time around to bring you four dispatches during the New York Film Festival. We're very excited! Today, we're focusing only on one film because there's a lot we'd like to discuss about it—and frankly, there's a lot to unpack. The film is Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller's latest based on a true story, starring Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Mark and Dave Schultz (two Olympic Gold Medalists) and Steve Carell as John du Pont.
Inevitably, I feel like Foxcatcher is going to be a huge contender in the Oscar race—Carell for sure will be nominated for Best Actor, so I'm happy that we're getting a chance to talk about this so we can discuss the complexities of the story.
On a personal note, this movie has haunted me since I watched it. I know that we want to discuss many aspects of it, but primarily, we wanted to focus on the toxic masculinity that is inherent in every shot of Foxcatcher. Whilst watching it—I always felt on guard, always ready for anything. The tension was so palpable between all the main characters, and all of it was crafted in a very organic way. In my opinion, Miller was able to capture a really terrifying part of mankind with honesty. As opposed to something that felt very manipulative, like say Hungry Hearts, this movie felt natural in its depictions. Both Mark and John felt like outliers that could spontaneously combust at any moment and you're not sure who's the villain, even if you kind of know the story going in, or whatever—so, Miller acutely created a balance of suspicion, which made my experience of this film very compelling.
(Also, there are going to be spoilers, so stop reading if you don't want to know what happens!)
Sara: Their (Mark and John's) relationship is so unhealthy and this isn't a typical mentor-mentee one, but much more sinister and twisted. I also found that the relationship between the Schultz brothers was about a lot more than just sibling rivalry—that energy seems to spark them during their practices with each other. It's more of a power struggle, but even this is too reductive. It's complicated. At times it feels like a father-son dynamic—they rely on each other in different ways. But then Dave seems to be much more in charge and assertive—he has a family, he has roots, while Mark has this daily routine of practice in the morning and microwavable noodles in the evening.
The thing I found particularly interesting was how this film, which is ultimately about wrestling, doesn't have that many scenes devoted to the sport—the more we get to know these characters, the less we see actual wrestling. This decline also coincides with Mark's loss of focus as he gets closer to du Pont. Although, I liked seeing Channing Tatum play up his acting more than his physicality in a film.
I kept thinking about Charles Atlas throughout this film. Atlas was this spokesperson for manliness and a symbol of strength. His ads appeared in comic books and boys could order his exercise tips. Catchphrases from the ads were things like "Hey, Skinny! Yer Ribs are Showing!" They all centered around making so-called "puny boys" feel like they could buy into a new life just by bulking up. John du Pont was like one of these little boys who bought a Charles Atlas (Mark Schultz; Dave Schultz later) for himself. Did you feel like John du Pont was really good at performing power? Those motivational talks were filled with typical, American Dream-like catch phrases (Work hard and you can achieve anything you wish, etc. etc.) I found that he was so good at selling false hopes.
Fariha: Everything you brought up is so important. We can move into the character dynamics later, but John Du Pont was this terrifying machine of a man. Carell characterized him so well because everytime he was on screen, the sheer physicality of him—which wasn't really masculine but more an uncomfortability—the hunched up back, the hollow ass—seemed distorted and destructive. He seemed in pain in his very stance. The most heinous part of his character was that he had this very definite idea of what it meant to be masculine, and he found Mark (and Dave, to a lesser extent) as an embodiment of that, and that's why he was drawn to him. He wanted to both be him and recruit and control him. Maybe there was hope of vicarious strength; that by training Mark to win the World Championships, it'd be his success also. Which seems natural, but is so sinister in the case for du Pont, because you see his desire for power. Mark and John don't have a traditional mentor/mentee relationship, as you said, and because you see that both of these humans are so lacking in love, and stability within themselves—somebody is going to get hurt. Which also adds to the ongoing tension throughout the film.
In du Pont's talk to Mark when he first comes to Foxcatcher Farm (about war, and Americanism and the future of mankind) it was said in this brutish, dangerous manner—he used so many war motifs—and it was scary to see this frail person talk about brutality and leadership. I don't think du Pont is good at performing power. I think that he's a caricature of a human, like so many of these men are, and so he has this whole spiel. His whole speech comes from a point of privilege—the du Ponts are one of the most richest families in America—and thereby from entitlement, and thus a naturally a skewed vision of a country, and its men. It was sad in these moments because you could see how far he was pushing himself to be harder and more aligned with all of these ideals that he's probably been fed since birth. I was always waiting for him to pull his mask off and show his vulnerabilities, but someone like du Pont, it's clear, won't let anyone in close enough to see what's underneath it all. And that was terrifying, just terrifying.
I kept thinking about Elliot Rodger, and how there are so many similarities between some psycho-murderer who's angered that the world is not providing him with all the things he thinks he deserves—which is white male privilege 101—to someone like du Pont who will manipulate through money and power to get what he wants, but the reason he'll do that is because he thinks that life was made for him. Society doesn't give room for men to be fragile, so they lash out whenever they get the chance. If du Pont, at some point in his life, was told by someone that he trusted, that he could be who he was—and that's fine—that he didn't have to be faux masculine and have muscles or be a patriot, maybe he wouldn't have become such a cruel, broken, human being. If we didn't socialize men with such a lack of complexity, male violence wouldn't be so inordinate and common. du Pont seemed suffocated by life, but it's only devastating for the people who are victim to his, and every other angry dude's, wrath.
Sara: I also think that the thing driving/hurting du Pont the most is that he comes from this long line of men who accomplished so much. He was born into a legacy which he could never really live up to and what makes this even more terrifying is that deep down, we know he will do anything to prove himself worthy. That's what makes the scene of Dave Schultz's murder even more uncomfortable to watch: in order for du Pont to win over him—as a symbol of masculinity—he has to catch Schultz off guard, when Schultz is defenseless and at a disadvantage. And he keeps shooting him because, in his mind, he's winning. He's succeeding. It's this unfair advantage that deludes him.
The other person in du Pont's life who, although we didn't see much of her, did haunt du Pont, was his mother, Jean Austin du Pont (played by Vanessa Redgrave). Bennett Miller was quoted as saying that this story had, he believed, at its centre "a formidable woman, from a horribly impressive lineage...whose gaze can castrate." The context of this was why he chose Redgrave, but Jean's gazes and her expectations are what ultimately set some sort of success barometer for John. He's always trying to impress her and upstage his ancestors. Her presence is always felt—was this what we were feeling the entire time? Her authority? Her high expectations—expectations that could never be met? We barely see Redgrave, but we feel her. When she drops by to check out John's wrestling team, John immediately huddles the group in and delivers this fake speech that doesn't even make sense in the context of wrestling or elite training. He really hams it up for her.
Ultimately, the people who suffer the most are the people with the most to lose. So while, to John, life is this sort a game or a delusion or some way of impressing people—the Schultz family pays the ultimate price. I mean, a man ultimately loses his life because of male chauvinism and privilege. I was much more terrified of John pulling off the mask, because, there wasn't really anything there. His self-definition and self-image were entirely based on other people's opinions/reception of him. I keep thinking about the scene, when, after his mother dies, he releases her show horses. I mean, now he's in charge, so to speak, but how do you think he handles this power? Is it even power—didn't he just...inherit it? I can't decide if deep down, he knows this.
Fariha: The bit about Jean kind of made me feel uncomfortable. Even though I did feel her omnipresence, everything in my experience of watching the film was detached from it, and from her. Obviously she had control over the house and was trying to keep up this leveled austerity—that I think a lot of rich people do—but at no point did I want, nor feel, the film to be about her power. For me it wasn't about that. So, when Miller said that in the press conference, I felt a bit strange about the whole thing, because ultimately this is a story about a man who makes a choice—and very rarely do we talk about men and their choices.
Violent white men are always given a retribution by history (except mass murderers, and thank God we don't give them a pass, Jesus)—that's why I take the fact that he's a purported "paranoid schizophrenic" with a grain of salt. We are always willing to give white sociopaths the defence—when people are like: oh he was actually a super nice person. It's like, "Oh, cool, why did he murder a human being in cold blood though?" It's so obnoxious, and unfair because nobody else gets this. We don't even know half of the names of people in Guantanamo but we have all these films about white men and their angst that aims to "humanize" their actions.
I remember watching a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer. He, himself, was interviewed for large parts of it, and at one point he mentioned that his mother (specifically) was brought into question—like if she was a better mother maybe he wouldn't have been a serial killer that killed, castrated, and ate seventeen young (mainly black) men. It's ludicrous. We always want to put these actions onto something else, and if its a woman and her bad parenting—then all the better! But what he said in the interview was really striking. He adamantly said that this was his choice, and he made them—no one forced him into killing these men. That it had nothing to do with the way that he was brought up, or his life circumstances. He had an urge, and he followed it. So I'm so apprehensive about even mentioning Jean, because sure—Miller, might think that may have triggered something in John. I mean he was obviously weakened by his mother's power over him, and that's hard for anybody, but it doesn't, nor should it, ever be something that is seen as a catalyst. You know? I mean, I like the film outside of that reading—what do you think, Sara?
Sara: I want to make it clear that I don't think his mother is in anyway to blame and I don't actually think Miller believes that either, at least, not by the way she is depicted in this film. I think her omnipresence is more symbolic—she represents this institution, even this idea of exceptionalism—a word du Pont keeps repeating himself. We should get into that a little later because she is only one of two women in this film and they are more, to me, symbols, than they are people. The thing with all films is that, I find, you need to see them two, three times before you can pinpoint exactly what is going on, but I think she represents more how du Pont views the world and people—what he is owed; his delusions of grandeur. This story is also not focused on what led du Pont to kill Schultz—the emphasis of this film is the relationship that was destroyed by him—how his actions were destructive and ruined real people. And I think it's more about how du Pont, as a symbol of white male privilege, justifies his destructive actions to himself and how they're almost parodied. Whenever he does perform power—makes a speech or a documentary about himself—it looks absolutely ridiculous.
Although, that being said, Miller is always very subtle. What made me feel queasy was that, in terms of representing du Pont's violence, Miller played up this angle of "you want what money can't buy" a little too much to the point where that actually felt like a justification for his violent choices. It felt at times like I was being fed this motif of the rich, isolated white man who doesn't understand human beings and relationships and instead doesn't treat people like humans, but like things. This, I found, was the excuse masked as "insight into a monster." I say this because so many scenes centre around Mark and Dave, and their affection towards each other: foreheads touching and whispering words of encouragement to each other. And du Pont is always there, observing this connection—that's what made me feel so uneasy. The omnipresence of the mother was something different, but also unsettling.
Initially, when du Pont asks Mark, not Dave, up to the ranch, that's a power move because Mark is lucky to be plucked out of obscurity and given an opportunity. But when du Pont brings Dave and his family up, that's a move meant to drive a rift between the brothers. And I found that the weight of his jealousy was used as a justification for his violent actions. I think the relationship with his mother is more about upholding a legacy and being exceptional, but that's not what ultimately drives du Pont to kill because even if he doesn't measure up, he can buy power. He has purchasing power. What Miller seems to be arguing is that du Pont wants what he can't buy, which still doesn't justify violence. He wants to feel accepted by men and when he doesn't get his way, he gets in his car and tells Dave "You don't like me," and then pulls out a gun and shoots—that is what makes this so much more horrifying, senseless, and disgusting. This is how he views the world and that this is how he deals with real life. It's still, as you say, a way to justify violent men, but I think in this case, it has little to do with Jean. I think there's something different and interesting going on there.
Fariha: I think you're right, maybe her omnipresence was an aim to bring nuance into the story—and you're definitely right about Miller, I think his take on du Pont and this story is subversive, as opposed to just perpetuating the norm of these kinds of narratives. The fact that du Pont does always look out of place—either his suit is too big, or his pants are too baggy, or he's this small man weaponized in a sea of bulky, athletic men—his presence is so incongruent. So maybe it's also a story largely about acceptance, maybe Miller is saying that real masculinity is about a need for diversity of male practice.
That scene where he's competing at a tournament and his white chalky, sweaty body is so awfully candid—and when he wins this paltry competition he's gloating, he's on top of the world—it's so absurd to me that he's so deluded, but also its so interesting to have this insight because of how far his desperation takes him. I mean, at certain points of this film I felt like when I was watching Scorsese's "Wolf Of Wall Street," I understand that it's not a glorification of this evil, and ultimately we know that both Jordan Belfort and John du Pont don't succeed in their missions of power, but to me, I can't stop questioning: why do we have to keep making films that show these destructive men in the first place? It's as if sometimes these filmmakers are trying to ascertain the banality of evil (as Hannah Arendt so wonderfully articulated) that they overlook other complex stories that are as equally interesting. Why another film about greed? It's not that audacious—white men want money and power, and yes they will do whatever they can to get it, i.e kill.
Absolute power corrupts, absolutely, and I find that so many films these days are just an enumeration of how to prove this aphorism to be true. So, even though I think Miller did a good job with this story, I did feel that frustration of, well what next? Besides, we know how it ends. You knew how it was going to end from the first bleak shot.
I think, personally, my favorite person was Dave Schultz, because he was such a juxtaposition to Dave and John's insecurities. I think its very telling that he's the one that's always affectionate—either with his wife, or kids, or even with Mark. He's friendly, he's personable, he's the antithesis of the male villain. So his death is so much emblematic of the desire to destroy men that don't fit the mould. It's arguable that his character traits are more "feminine" (I hate this, and I don't agree with this idea—but I do think societally we consider "kindness" and "affection" more female attributes, which is where all these issues stem from, a disengagement with the fluidity of gender, and a desire to create a more gender normative society when we're not) and so to kill him, I think, is a squashing of the feminine. I wasn't at all surprised that Dave Schultz was the one that died, it was a powerplay as you so succinctly pointed out, but also why was it a powerplay? Because, du Pont needed to destroy something that he considered weaker than him, even if we both know Dave wasn't. And it's a testament—as you also pointed out—that he killed him only when he was defenceless. Toxic masculinity is always weakness masked with guns and weapons that are used as a facade. Underneath, always lies an embittered and pathetic person who's refusing to mature and face the world. du Pont hides behind a veneer of strength, because thats his one and only defence.
So, I guess I want to steer the conversation (if only for a little bit) to ask what you think is the point of this film, is there a point, even? Should there be a point? If we characterize male violence as it so often is—like, whoops,sorry, that's just another part of maleness—then how do we move forward as a society?
Sara: Good question. Here's what I think Miller was trying to ask and answer: Is there such a thing as luck? The answer is yes, but this goes against North American notions of "hard work pays off." A better, more interesting question would have been: If you could choose (or have your characters choose) between hard work and luck, what would you (or they) choose? Either way, I keep thinking about what Fran Lebowitz said about luck and gender—"Gender is a very big piece of luck. Here's what a big piece of luck it is: Any white, Gentile, straight man who isn't the President of the United States failed."
So luck. There is the eccentric millionaire who was just born into one of the wealthiest families. We have a wrestler who is struggling and then gets this random call and a good opportunity—a new way life and some kind of luck. But Miller also seems to want to show us what he deems the pitfalls of luck—excess and laziness. Mark stops training and working out. Mark binges after his first trial goes poorly. His brother is supposed to represent the antithesis of the good luck theory—that hard work always pays off. It's Dave who makes Mark throw up the hotel meals and candy bars so that Mark can lose weight in time for the weigh-in. He makes Mark bike with layers of sweats on so he can burn that excess weight off. Dave is the one who cleans up the mess. When John du Pont tries to interrupt this session, it's Dave who tells John to get out. There's this struggle—and it's so weird saying this, because these were real people—between two ideals. So we have one idea overpowering the other—it's still a power struggle. It's a battle over ideology that still ties in to the central tenets of America. I, too, would have rathered a nuanced discussion on gender because wrestling is a sport that not so many men participate in and it doesn't get great coverage like other sporting events. I mean, even though the Schultz brothers won Olympic medals—there's no endorsement payoff in it.
We've seen these films about the pitfalls of money, fame, power. We have these innocent, Adamic figures who are supposed to be trusting, good and naive, but are screwed over in some way. Or, we get the power-hungry Alpha males who will do whatever it takes to succeed only to watch them fall from grace because they're playing god. Did we get a different message in Foxcatcher? No, you're right. We got the same story. The same types of questions. The same answers.
I think this film avoided answering a question that a lot of people—especially successful people—are unwilling to discuss and that's natural-born advantages. Intelligence is luck. Conventional good looks—luck. White skin—luck. Gender—luck. Wealth and status—also luck. Etc. Etc. And I think, we aren't going to really move on until more people at least, begin to acknowledge this. This factors into so many discussions and yet so many people avoid talking about it. So, what do I think about the guy who represents all this privilege shooting this man who represents the opposite—I can't decide if it's a statement on how bad ideals prevail, thus discrediting this idea of luck. However, you brought up a great point: the violence du Pont enacts is sort of make-believe superiority because he has the advantage and he's therefore masking his own inferiority. Maybe I'm reading into it too much?
Fariha: I think that's it. Not only does du Pont mask his inferiorities through money and class advantages, and of course—his whiteness, but he can also have a movie made about him that tries to engage with why, when they answer is just straight up: privilege. That's all. Miller is probably drawn to the idea of power because it's fascinating to see how people are so corrupted by it so easily. Legacy is desired, but its so ephemeral—and maybe in a roundabout way Miller is pointing out the fleeting appeal of class and societal privilege, because ultimately John du Pont died in jail. And Jordan Belfort lost everything. Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death. Power is illusory.
Sara: Now that you've brought up the class and societal privilege, I really wanted to discuss the only two women in this film. We have Dave's wife, Nancy, and then we have Jean.
I'm starting to wonder if Jean represents this idea of luck and privilege. I'm thinking back to that scene I mentioned: when she dies, John frees all her prized, well-bred horses. We know that she was a leading breeder of horses. The value system of these horses is based entirely on eugenics—certain traits and genes are valued over others—like the value placed on thoroughbreds. So here we have an example of genetic advantages—or once referred to as pedigree—that allows a small pool of horses to be valued more than the rest. And I wonder if Jean's omnipresence is that tradition she symbolizes and upholds: that natural advantage of being born into the right family and socioeconomic status. John keeps giving these speeches about achieving, being exceptional, and training. John keeps spewing these ideas of earning things. But then both he and his mother keep talking about medals—these extrinsic rewards—and about how to display them. When John is talking about putting his wrestling trophy in one of the main cases, their debate centers around whether his achievement was worthy, not whether he worked hard for the reward, or what he had to do to win it (as you mentioned, it was not really much of a competition to boast about). It's all about the reward, status, and praise.
As for Nancy, we don't get much of her and when we do, it's when Dave is being shot. I remember that scene where instead of bowing down to John, she just says a casual "Hello," and goes back to her kids. She doesn't get up to greet him, she stays with her children. Mark even gets mad at her for this. I think with Nancy, it's that she doesn't care for titles or status—she's more in line with Dave in terms of family values. What did you think, Fariha?
Fariha: I mean, unfortunately the two females here are not really fleshed out as characters. Which is unfortunate, as their significance is definite. We talked about Jean and her power, but you brought up a good point about Nancy. She could have had much more of an impact on this storyline because of her disinterest with the accepted state of being. Which is ultimately why Mark gets so angry at her when she doesn't get up for du Pont—he understands that he's entered this world of social propriety, and hierarchy—and that he's ultimately there to serve du Pont. Nancy's lack of awareness, or rather disinterest, is so evident and it could have been really interesting to explore it—especially because of her inevitable impact on du Pont—given the denouement where he goes to their house to shoot Dave. It could have been much more affecting if Miller was able to explain that du Pont's residual anger stemmed from Dave and Nancy's disinterest in power play—and how that infuriates him, and leads him to react in the way he does. Power games is the only way he knows how to interact with human beings—so he takes it as a lack of respect and is insulted that he can't buy Dave and Nancy's admiration—that's why he decides to murder Dave.
It's a long film, so there's no reason that these female characters weren't more fleshed out. We're often told that women's stories are not as significant and yet you see that female characters always the buffers and fillers for men and their stories. Their placement is necessary to the fluidity of this, and every, story. Out of everyone—Nancy is the person that suffers most because of du Pont, but it ends quite abruptly on an overhead shot of him being ambushed by a SWAT team. In the last few frames of the film there's no compassion, and I think it could have been a lot more powerful if Nancy wasn't dismissed as a person and recognized as someone who was as much of a constituent in Foxcatcher than Dave, Mark or even John du Pont.
Sara: And even that these women don't always value the same things that key male figures value. Again, we wanted to focus on Foxcatcher because not only are you going to be hearing a lot about this film, but there were so many themes and issues we felt we needed to discuss. Next dispatch, we'll be back to our regular format.
[Image of Foxcatcher cast at Cannes via Getty]