Thursday, May 7, 2015

Killer of Foxes

From the outset, Foxcatcher is intimately attuned to physicality. This is, after all, a wrestling film. Early on, we see Dave Schultz and his brother Mark (played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, respectively) in training. They gently stretch one another's limbs and joints; they slowly mimic the movements and interlocking holds of a match; they carefully put their hands on each other's faces and heads; they embrace. It is a kind of intimate dance, a pantomime of aggression doubling as a physical expression of brotherly love. The wrestlers' mere presence is a testament to their physicality. Tatum's performance of the wide-armed, short-striding gate of very muscular men verges on a waddle. It is almost as if his body is so primed for explosive athletic movement that it is uncomfortable with the mundane physical acts of daily life.

Steve Carell's portrayal of John du Pont, the monumentally wealthy wrestling aficionado best known for murdering Dave Schultz, is equally physically expressive but set in almost an almost diametrically opposed register. He tilts his head back at an odd angle and maintains a plasticene facial stillness. His nose and teeth have been bizarrely prosthetically reinforced. His body is soft and hunched; he moves with a pinched, sclerotic shuffle. The effect is one of instant clammy smarm, an effect that is only enhanced when he opens his mouth. He speaks in a clipped, aristocratic western Pennsylvania accent that halts and restarts unnaturally. And he seems to have no ear for conversational English as spoken by non-billionaire non-aristocrats. When du Pont first meets Mark Schultz and attempts to convince him to live and train on the Foxcatcher estate, he drops this tangential snippet (and realize, this is a conversation about wrestling): "Do you birdwatch? You could learn a lot from birds. I'm an ornithologist. But more importantly I'm a patriot. I want to see this country soar again." Later in the film, du Pont assures Mark that they have become so close that Mark need not call him "Mr. du Pont." "My friends call me 'Eagle' or 'Golden Eagle.' Or you can call me 'John' or 'Coach.'" Will do, Coach.

It soon becomes clear that du Pont is a fraud. His knowledge of wrestling is mostly limited to classical/patriotic soliloquies that pass for motivational speeches. He calls himself a "mentor" and a "leader of men" but his athletes view him as little more than a very creepy benefactor. The physical contact he goes out of his way to initiate with the wrestlers--touches on the arm, demonstrations of elementary wrestling moves, even some drunken horseplay--display an unearned intimacy. We begin to understand that anything du Pont claims to have achieved he has purchased. His only childhood friend, he confides to Mark Schultz, was paid by du Pont's own mother to hang out with her strange son. His claims on his own behalf are grandiose delusions, testaments to the power of extreme wealth to buy human experience. The du Pont of Foxcatcher is a mix of extreme interpersonal awkwardness and pathological vanity. In other words, he is terrifying.

Hollywood films seem obsessed with achieving maximum imitative "authenticity" in their portrayal of historical figures. They strain to revivify the character's every gestural mannerism and facial tic. Here, Tatum and Carell may have taken this tendency to its endgame. It's hard not to be a little awed by power of Carell's eccentricity, by the exquisite menace he projects throughout the film. But Carell's portrayal is a grotesque of the historical du Pont's manner of being. It verges on pure performance, on a kind of expressionist caricature that nearly transcends the film itself.

Which is, in a certain way, fine with me. In fact, I very much appreciate the moments of almost hallucinatory grotesquerie that well up from within Foxcatcher's based-on-true-events, sports-movie structure. When Mark Schultz loses a match in the 1988 Olympic trials, he feverishly devours an entire room service cart's worth of chocolate cake and fried chicken, smashes his face into the mirror and then attempts to purge the weight by first vomiting and then by losing 12 pounds of sweat on a stationary bike. Flying to a benefit dinner (a dinner honoring du Pont, presumably funded by du Pont himself), du Pont engages in a coke-fueled reading of remarks he has prepared for Schultz: " ornithologist, philatalist, philanthropist!" he repeats over and over in his manic whine, Joker-grin pasted on his face.  Later, there is the very strange sight, almost reminiscent of the great bath scene in Spartacus, of a coke binging Schultz giving du Pont a haircut. It's pretty strong stuff and it quite effectively conveys the sense of a familiar human situation (athletes training for a competition) that has slipped into frightening, unfamiliar territory, of a world become demented and strange.  In terms of communicating that strangeness-unto-dread, of making the viewer feel it in her toes, Foxcatcher is a near-masterpiece.

But this is the problem. Not only does Carell's performance threaten to eclipse the rest of the film, it also threatens to eclipse du Pont as a character. We glimpse du Pont's queasily childlike relationship with his mother (played with delicious, icy dismissiveness by Vanessa Redgrave), just enough to infer some Freud-via-Hitchcock psychopathology. But it really is just a glimpse. All we really understand of du Pont is that foreign way of speech, that clammy physical presence, that spectacular eccentricity. And so the violent act that looms at the end of the film, an act known to any viewer with even a cursory knowledge of the film's backstory and that has no satisfying motivation either in the film's plot or the historical record, seems simply inherent to du Pont's being. Carell's du Pont is a purely cinematic artifact; the set of signifiers attached to him all point us inexorably to the inevitable narrative conclusion. (This is probably the deepest irony of the hagiographic documentary that we see du Pont's sycophants producing throughout Foxcatcher.  The doc makes clumsy use of cinematic artifice to create the campy, fawning portrait of du Pont as a neo-classical patriot and wrestling yogi. But the "real" du Pont of Foxcatcher--the one played by Steve Carell--is no less fabricated, only much more artfully so.)

This becomes especially problematic when we see the direction those signifiers are pointing. Foxcatcher presents du Pont as fundamentally estranged from authentic human relationships. We understand this partly as a product of his wealth; his intimacies and accomplishments are all, at their heart, financial transactions. This sounds like it could be an illustration of the spiritual distortions of wealth, or a critique of capitalism's contractualization of experience. But Foxcatcher doesn't come off this way; there's another facet to the portrayal. As the awkward, unwanted touches, the almost idolatrous gazes, the outbursts of jealousy all mount up over the course of the film, we begin to see du Pont not only as very strange but as queer. And this queerness is inextricable from his not just stilted, not just alien, but ultimately threatening affect.

When du Pont attempts to engage in the kind of physical movement and contact that the Schultz brothers--those salt-of-the earth, hetero jocks--perform so naturally, he just looks pathetic and contemptible, like someone's effete little brother trying to hang with the cool kids. The brothers know how real men love (that is: with a kind of tender physical aggression). The faggy polymath most certainly does not. Du Pont's most fundamental delusion is that he could ever experience the kind of camaraderie and physicality that such guys enjoy. And this delusion, this violation of the Schultz's space of straight brotherly love, is the heart of du Pont's menace.

So we understand du Pont's violent trajectory not as a product of some corrupt societal structure, (or of simple mental illness, which is the most likely case) but instead as the inevitable product of his deviance, his alienation from the "normal" social world. For all of the indelible moments that it evokes, Foxcatcher really is a bad, old story, one that Hollywood has told many times over. It is less a critique of a social or economic situation than a critique of a very strange man. In other words, it has very little to say.

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