Olympic wrestling is graceful, tactical, violent—a dance between partners, a duel between predators. Every hold is an embrace designed to subdue. You can win on points, of course, but the ultimate goal is to roll your opponent onto his back and hold him there—defenseless, unable to move, completely at your mercy. Grab. Twist. Pin.
Since childhood, brothers Mark and Dave Schultz have wrestled. Coming from a broken home, they moved around a lot, and wrestling was their only constant—the thing each could cling to. They trained together. Made each other better. And even as they climbed to the pinnacle of the sport (each won an Olympic gold medal in 1984), they continued to train together—locking eyes and limbs, looking for vulnerabilities in each. Grabbing. Twisting. Pinning.
Dave's the gregarious one—the loquacious tactician, the easy-smiling glad-hander. He gained a beautiful wife and two great kids along the way. Mark may be younger and bigger, but he lives behind Dave, admiring him, envying him. He stalks the gym like a bear, eyes ahead, rarely talking. He lives alone, eating ramen, playing video games. His brother is his closest friend. Perhaps his only one. And gold medal or no, he feels at times like little more than an extra limb swinging at Dave's side—unwilling to leave, unable to live on his own.
Then one day Mark gets a call asking him to come and meet the wealthy John du Pont at his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher Farm. He's flown first class and arrives at the front door via private helicopter, where du Pont casts a vision. He wants to create a world-class wrestling facility at Foxcatcher—a place where the best in the nation can grab, twist and pin.
"I want to see this country great again," John says. And he wants Mark and Dave to be a part of that greatness.
Mark's moved by du Pont's talk of country, family and a winning wrestling program. But when Mark asks Dave to come along, Dave balks. He's happy where he is, Dave says. He doesn't want to uproot his family. But Dave adds that it could be a great opportunity for his younger brother, and he encourages Mark to take it.
And so Mark does. For the first time in his life, the wrestler leaves his brother's familiar clutch and moves to Foxcatcher, to be guided by the gilded hand of John du Pont. The two become friends, and when Mark wins a world championship, he hugs John as if the man is his father.
But Mark, of all people, should know that what looks like an embrace can, in fact, be something else.
Mark and John are both men who want affirmation and, for lack of a better word, a family. For a time, Mark sees John as the father he never had. And John's affection for Mark seems real, too—though he's really longing for the love and approval of his distant, aged mother. While none of this is positive in its own right (and, in fact, the dynamics in play become seriously dysfunctional), it does speak to the profound impact family can have in all of our lives—for better or worse.
Dave, meanwhile, is an admirable character in his own right. When Mark pushes him away, Dave refuses to be pushed too far. And when Mark loses a match and suffers an almost cataclysmic breakdown—gorging on room service between matches as a way to purposely blow his weight category and be disqualified—it's Dave who breaks into Mark's room and forces him into an emergency training regimen to get him back on the mat.
"I love you," Dave tells him. "I'm not going to let you go down like this."
There are suggestions that John's love of wrestling isn't all about the sport. He seems to enjoy looking at Mark's shirtless torso. And he once wakes Mark and asks him to wrestle in the du Pont portrait gallery. There, we see Mark lying face down on a mat as John wrestles on top of him, grunting and panting. Though it's ostensibly just wrestling, the movie wants to suggest that there's another dynamic at work.
We see Mark's naked backside during a weigh-in.
The movie is filled with the almost slow-motion "violence" associated with Olympic-style wrestling. Men grab and grapple, throwing and twisting and pinning opponents. During one otherwise low-key match, Mark whips his head up and bloodies Dave's nose. On television and elsewhere, there are repeated images of MMA competitors, their faces bloodied and bruised.
John slaps Mark across the face and calls him an ape. And Mark sometimes engages in self-abuse: After a lost match, he hits himself repeatedly and eventually smashes his head into a mirror, leaving a bloody gash; he repeatedly jabs his finger into his cheek.
John has a fetish for guns. When he buys a huge military transport vehicle that arrives without the machine gun on top, he angrily slaps away a pen and paper from the delivery guy looking for a signature. To punctuate a "rah-rah" speech in the gym, he shoots his pistol into the air.
[Spoiler Warning] Dave eventually does move to Foxcatcher and essentially becomes the team's coach. While he's living in du Pont's onsite chalet, John drives up, sees Dave in the driveway and shoots him three times, killing him. We see blood stain the snow, along with the wounds in Dave's stomach and back. John is later tackled by law enforcement officials.
Crude or Profane Language
One or two s-words. God's name is misused.
Drug and Alcohol Content
When John first meets Mark, he offers the wrestler a drink. When Mark refuses, John applauds the man's dedication to his training … then pours himself a double. Indeed, he's often seen with a drink in his hand. He serves champagne at a party, and he pretends to be drunk so that he can "wrestle" with some of the guys.
When John and Mark fly to a banquet, John snorts cocaine and offers Mark some. Mark initially refuses, but John insists, instructing him on the proper way to do it. Later, Mark snorts coke again while lazing on the porch with John.
Other Negative Elements
We hear Mark urinating. When he overeats to mess up his weight, Dave makes him vomit to purge. We hear him repeatedly throw up.
John has a, shall we say, complicated relationship with his mother. After she dies, he releases all of her beloved (and expensive) horses, forcing them out of their stables as if rejecting them. (The next scene, ominously, is of John admiring a huge machine gun he just bought.)
It's implied that at least some of the matches John himself sponsors and competes in are rigged by way of bribes.
St. Augustine said that sins are virtues twisted, and such is the case in Foxcatcher. This is a story of love bent to tragedy, of two men finding the affirmation they crave to be more of an affliction.
Mark's desire to prove himself apart from brother isn't unusual. And the eagerness with which Mark takes to John, his flawed father figure, is as touching as it is disturbing. When the two fly out to a major competition on du Pont's private jet, John can sees that Mark is troubled. Mark, who rarely speaks and never exposes vulnerability, nearly breaks into tears. "I just don't want to let you down," he says.
Even as John drives a wedge between Mark and Dave, he does it out of the desire for love and affirmation. He hungers for his mother's affection, and the movie suggests that much of the Foxcatcher program—much of John's whole life, really—is about du Pont trying to prove himself worthy in her eyes. He admits to Mark that he only had one friend growing up, the son of a chauffeur, and he later discovered that his mother paid that boy to be his friend. And when Mark admits that he, too, grew up friendless except for Dave, moviegoers can almost be happy for both of them as they find a weird sort of attachment and friendship with each other.
But we know the page will turn. Mutual affection twists to hurt and anger, jealousy and much worse. Such is what our fallen world makes of our gifts, of our emotions, of us.
Based on a true story, Foxcatcher takes some significant liberties with history, of course. It's really more of an acting showcase for its three leads (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and especially Steve Carell, almost unrecognizable as John du Pont). Still, while its content quotient is light by R-rated standards, it's a slow, somber and sometimes grim way to spend 134 minutes. Uplift and instruction, often hallmarks of Hollywood's biopic picks, are all but forced off the mat as any aspirations that John or Mark or Dave might've had at the beginning wind up laying red and dead in the snow.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Steve Carell as John du Pont; Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz; Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz; Sienna Miller as Nancy Schultz; Vanessa Redgrave as Jean du Pont
November 14, 2014
March 3, 2015