By Christopher Sharrett.

I was far more impressed than I thought I might be with Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, a compelling film at various subtle yet complex levels. I should say first that as a person who spent his early life in Southeast Pennsylvania, I recall the John du Pont murder case well, but as the film unfolded I became focused on its expansive argument, forgetting the details of the “real” case.

My memories aside, a few basic points are necessary about the context of the name Du Pont in our world.[1] The Du Ponts immigrated to the US from France after the French Revolution. They made a fortune manufacturing gunpowder, supplying the US for all of its wars – their fortune is based on death. DuPont Chemical later perfected such death-dealing chemicals as napalm – they helped sustain the US invasion of Southeast Asia, and were known as villains to every university student during the years of anti-war resistance. DuPont first produced napalm bombs in World War II for use against Japan. In the pre-war years, they sponsored a domestic terrorist organization called the Black Legion to attack trade union organizers. DuPont invented the famous advertising blurb “better living through chemistry.” I would admit that certain of their products became conveniences to the public, and their philanthropy was important (although a common tactic of the ruling class to retain its legitimacy – and philanthropy wards off socialism). But they also created a more synthetic, artificial world, and were major players in furthering its pollution.

The film concerns John du Pont’s interest, in the 1980s, in Olympic wrestling, resulting in his taking under his wing two champions at the sport, Mark and Dave Schultz, both gold medal winners in the 1984 Los Angeles games. I won’t take the reader further into the film’s plot, but will simply note the following:

  1. Atmosphere and mise-en-scène

Some have stated that the film feels “flat.” To my mind, its grey, consistently morbid and overcast atmosphere is a perfect complement for the lack of affect in the main characters, especially John du Pont (a superb performance by Steve Carell, working through a pound of make-up). Du Pont’s inability to articulate his feelings (hence the rather sparse script), his self-medicating with massive snorts of 10378166cocaine while still maintaining the façade of a local Brahmin, form the center of the film, complimented by Mark Schultz’s (Channing Tatum) own lack of self-awareness – Mark’s identity is never more than the dumb piece of beefcake taken advantage of by all parties. The Du Pont suites and drawing rooms at the Foxcatcher Estate come across essentially as silent, well-appointed crypts, an idea emphasized in a final scene as John tries to make his escape through the catacombs under the property. A particularly evocative moment is John’s demand for more wrestling practice from his young charges in the foreboding “portrait gallery,” a circular room lined with paintings of Du Pont patriarchs dating to the eighteenth century, under whose watchful gaze John’s homoerotic activities are enacted. There is a clear sense here and elsewhere that John must meet the approvals of his forbears and peers, and, to a degree, the small male group he wants to “coach” – with no knowledge of wrestling and an underlying contempt for the men, seen as well beneath him on the class ladder.

Early in the film, a Du Pont toady gives Mark a video featuring “the Du Pont dynasty.” Why should this be important (except as passing piece of historical information)? Of course it is crucially important that Mark (and all of us) know his/our place, as the tape, a PR handout, reminds the viewer that the Du Ponts are “the world’s wealthiest family,” a point to be flaunted, not recognized as an item of shame.

  1. Power

foxcatcherThere are a number of remarkable moments in the film that are superbly underplayed in describing the relationship of the American ruling class to state power. In one scene, du Pont practices target shooting with a handgun, accompanied by Pennsylvania State Police. We might wonder if du Pont is at the police barracks – of course he is on his estate, which is more comfortable and better outfitted than any police station. Du Pont later has an amphibious tank delivered to his mansion, but is incensed that it does not come with the .30 caliber machine gun he ordered – it appears later in the film with a full cartridge belt. He walks into his private, massive gym and fires his pistol at the ceiling to get the attention of the relaxing wrestlers. His involvement with the police and purchase of the tank make absolute sense. Du Pont owns state power, since his family helped to create it. It protects them and follows their directives. In this sense, the film is very expansive, reminding us of the role of private interest – the so-called 1% – in shaping state operations, until this or that oddball among the class causes embarrassment, as is the problem of John du Pont. Wealth, not “the government,” runs America.

10643952_785893048100179_423533321_aDu Pont makes a point of stressing patriotism, taking Mark on a tour of Valley Forge battlefield, constantly repeating, as his wrestling escapades continue, patriotic banalities (the film inserts photographs of the Du Ponts of the past, all of them standing by cannons or mounted on horses for foxhunts – they could be no more fazed by the killing of dumb animals than they have been, over generations, at the slaughter of people). He believes the platitudes of course, but perhaps more important, thinks these remarks will assist his basic ugliness at various soirees – he looks alternately like a grotesque gnome, a perching predator (with his outsize nose), and a “nerd” unworthy of the worship of his class and the macho male group he has culled from the lower class. Despite his diminutive size, he tends literally to look down his nose at people, emphasizing that his power resides in money, not physical stature, yet he is absolutely vulnerable on the issue of his ability to compete with other men – or should he love them? The film forms a tense and laudable dialectic here. John du Pont’s monotone is an extension (or generator) of that “flat” world around him, his affect almost nil (further erased by cocaine), erased still more by his overbearing family history.

  1. The Mother

foxcatcher-vanessa-redgraveJohn du Pont has such awful “mother issues” one can’t help but think of Psycho, but du Pont’s issues go far beyond those of Norman Bates – du Pont’s repression can destroy whole nations. Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), the mother, favors foxhunting, long an emblem of her class. Jean is explicitly not Norma Bates, haranguing her vulnerable son; she is soft-spoken but definite, an embodiment, in her quiet but expensive red suit, of her class and its demands. An entire room is filled with Du Pont foxhunting trophies, which John tries to put away. He lets loose the horses from their stable when his mother dies, perhaps too strained a moment. Jean insists that wrestling is a “low” sport (which it has certainly become, many media pundits not recognizing it as a sport), meaning on the one hand vulgar, tasteless, but also not associated with the ruling class. Does she recognize its homoerotic overtones? This is unclear, but John du Pont takes pains to show her his masculinity; he stages an impromptu, awkward speech at his gym, making the wrestlers create an aisle which his mother and her nurse never use, as he blabs a flag-waving pep talk. The mother leaves the building.

  1. Wrestling and Homoreoticism

It should go without saying that wrestling is the most intimate contact sport of any, with the male physique not merely accentuated by the uniform (as in football, where the contact with the male body is simultaneously involved with its annihilation) but grasped in “holds” that one can easily read as gestures of affection. Nude men in wrestling postures constitute some of the most (consciously) erotic statuary of Greco-Roman antiquity. Today’s wrestling, like most sport, channels erotic energy into destruction. Degraded organizations such as the US-based World Wrestling Entertainment have turned the activity into violent, hyper-macho soft-core porn, with a special emphasis on very skimpy costumes (on both sexes) offset by plenty of blood effects, “steel cage” matches (the human as animal) and the like – Mark is reduced to this after his fall from du Pont’s grace. In Foxcatcher, wrestling is explicitly about the male coping with repression through a form of male body contact legitimated (if scoffed at) by the mainstream. In several sequences of the film, John du Pont, in his “coach” persona, awkwardly offers instruction in wrestling as an excuse for touching his charges.

FoxcatcherWhen Mark loses a tournament, John is mentally castrated by his overbearing mother, then slides into depression, dismissing Mark, ultimately killing Dave (Mark Ruffalo) – out of anxiety that Dave, the most macho and certainly more clear-headed and competent of the brothers, now looks down on du Pont.

There is a crucial, supple scene that is central to examining the relationship of homoeroticism and repression. When Mark loses a key match, he retreats to his hotel room, where he punishes his body repeatedly, smashing his head into a mirror, as if his body must be destroyed as a source of pleasure when it cannot be transformed adequately into an instrument of violence. He then overeats, presumably to disqualify himself from further competition by gaining weight, but also to “make up” for the pleasures he has been deprived of in his break-neck pursuit of a dangerous career. He continues with destruction, smashing up the tray table and furniture. His brother finds him unconscious, then slaps him (du Pont has also slapped him, the common military/macho gesture to “get one’s attention”). Mark collapses across Dave’s lap, a pietà moment (we might recall the quattrocento as art history’s greatest celebration of the body after antiquity), but also an amalgam of wrestling scenes suddenly turned from death-instinct/destruction into the erotic. Dave then tries to help Mark lose the excess weight from his food binge with a punishing exercise routine – again the body is a target of destruction, but the moment emphasizes both fear of du Pont and the desperate need of money. Dave, a middle-class family man, has left his job as he falls for du Pont’s money-enhanced seduction. Mark berates Dave’s wife when she won’t stand up from her bed to greet du Pont, who casually intrudes on their privacy.

I have read that the real Mark Shultz has expressed anger via social media over the film’s suggestion that he had a gay relationship with du Pont, which the film doesn’t really do for all I have said here. I can understand someone being upset with misrepresentations of events in his/her life, but as several gay critics have noted, why the anger at gay sexuality? It seems quite logical on reflection. Schultz is insulted by the very suggestion of gay sex, gay people being, in his eyes, taboo and less than human it would seem, a common idea. He is actually repeating the arguments of the film even if he has learned nothing from it. The response tells us much about the impact of the sexual dogmas and religious mores that impose the repression they do, which continue to drive many of our population to the alternative of self-negation, destruction, death.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.

[1] The spelling of the family name is usually du Pont when quoting an individuals full name, but Du Pont when speaking of the family as a whole. The company is commonly referred to as DuPont. (See Wikipedia here and here.)

4 thoughts on “Foxcatcher: Wealth, Power, Repression”

  1. “Schultz is insulted by the very suggestion of gay sex…”

    I don’t recall the character in the film ever expressing that, verbally or otherwise.

    “…the film’s suggestion that he had a gay relationship with du Pont, which the film doesn’t really do…”

    There is a scene where you see Mark with his hair colored blonde, half-naked, snorting cocaine and lying at John’s feet like a lap dog. This follows a scene where John pulls Mark out of bed at night, again half-naked, takes him into the wrestling gym and we then get the sense that John is doing something on top of Mark (Mark’s face is in close-up the whole time planted on the ground). That seems to be more of a suggestion of a gay relationship. No?

  2. Marlon,

    I was referring to what the real Mark Schultz has said in the media. Yes, the film can be read as alluding to or suggesting gay sexuality (it’s pretty easy when dealing with wrestling in any context), but it doesn’t say that there actually WAS gay sex in this relationship. I don’t see the evidence, but I’ll screen it again. One could interpret the film simply as a sketch of a spoiled madman.


  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful and perceptive essay. I admit I was put off by the idea of watching yet another Steve Carrell film – as I just cannot tolerate his acting, but this seems like a good role for him. I had planned on skipping this film entirely. . . . A spoiled madman indeed!

  4. I’m with you, Gwendolyn! Steve Carrell isn’t my cup of tea but after reading so many praises I gave it a try and loved it. Clearly not one of Steve’s unforgettable movies, The Foxcatcher is full of drama, powerful scenes and the son-mother conflicts that have their core in DuPont’s love for wrestling.

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