On the most recent season of American Horror Story (Freak Show) there’s a depraved foil by the name of Dandy Mott, a highfaluting, affluent shut-in with a penchant for inflicting violence on those his physical inferior. His tailored suits and slickly oiled part stand in stark contrast to the tattered, deformed calvary of freaks that make up the namesake of the season, but beneath the perfumed facade of opulence and manicured sophistication is a reeking air of base barbarism. His is a most brutish proclivity nurtured utmost by an uninhibited sense of entitlement. In possessing all, nothing has value. Not even human life. With great money comes great power… and little responsibility. As King Joffrey infamously teased, “Everyone is mine to torment.”
Since the most recent economic collapse and subsequent Occupy movement, those in the upper echelon, the “one-percenters”, have become a sort of nationally derided myth. They jet around the world in lavish abandon, attending lush fundraisers, imbibing impossibly priced champagne and banging it out with gaggles of Eastern European models. Maybe slashing the throats of homeless vagabonds every once in a while for good measure. They’ve become caricatures, long teeth and all; braggarts removed from reality; personified wallets who can’t fold into the ebb and flow of middle-class normality. In this folklore view of the uber-wealthy, Patrick Batemans are hiding everywhere. If ever there was a symbol for the recklessly moneyed lifestyle of the criminally wealthy, it’s John du Pont. He’s pretty much the Batman of being a douchey trust-fund baby.
Watching interviews with Du Pont, it becomes immediately clear how out of his depth he is in just about any situation. From charities to coaching, he fumbles his way through his affairs unconvincingly. Writing checks his brain can’t cash. Like a special needs kid quoting Rudy. It’s almost heartbreaking how bad this guy is at being human. Droning on about discipline, responsibility, ornithology, or philately, there’s something to the way he speaks (so soft, so mindless) that makes you want to tune out. That demands it. His patterns of speech may be polished but they’re oh so hollow, like a Kenny G record. He’s basically a walking, talking Ambien with stubby teeth and a quality for malfeasance. There’s no question that were he not quite literally made of money, no one in their right mind would give this loon the time of day.
Foxcatcher follows the true story of du Pont and his relationship with Olympic gold medalists Mark and Dave Schlutz. After winning the top prize for wrestling at the 1984 summer games, Mark (Channing Tatum) still exists in the shadow of older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) until mysterious millionaire John du Pont invites Mark to take part in a training initiate known as “Foxcatcher”. While training at du Pont’s world class facility for the upcoming Worlds championship, Mark and Du Pont strike up an odd relationship that doesn’t fit neatly into a coach-pupil/father-son/boss-employee box. At times, their connection is that of an upsetting bromance. It’s odd but in a very specific, unclassifiable way. Picture an out-of-shape bag of man “pinning” down an Olympic athlete – who rightfully can’t mask his disdain for this lesser act of ego-masturbation – and you’ll get a general sense of their relationship. The whipping boy and the mutt seems as close as I can get.
If you didn’t live through the ’80s (or watch the trailer) you might not know how this story ends and I’m not going to spoil it for you here. We’ll just say that things get a little messy. In a first-degree kind of way. But it’s a quietly devastating tale, more than worth the journey.
As Du Pont, Steve Carrell is a frightfully vacuous vessel of self-righteous delusion. So he’s Michael Scott without the punchlines. (That’s what she said!) He’s the kind of guy who pats himself on the back and won’t stop until you join in on the patting. A pasty, flat-faced, shark-nosed, long-gummed mama’s boy with drug-fueled paranoid fantasies, he’s a misanthrope at an arm’s length from reality. Director Bennett Miller approaches his character with similar distance.
We’re never privy to the anecdotal insanity of Du Pont’s most colorful acting outs- the sociopathic multimillionaire reportedly drove around his property in a tank, paid off wrestlers to search his attic for ghosts, and “used dynamite to blow up a den of fox cubs” – rather our time spent with Du Pont is as vacuous as Carrell’s many thousand yard stares. It’s hollow by intention.
But this isn’t a movie interested in condemning a man for blowing up a den full of perhaps the most objectively cute critters in the world (though my heart whimpers at the thought of this heinous act), this is a film about a mental disease: affluenza. To call into question the legitimacy of said “disease” is part and parcel of the intrigue of Miller’s slow-moving character study. Miller invites us to form our own opinion on du Pont’s guilt, he avoids taking a definitive stance on the matter. Rather, we’re left to our own devices to piece together whether this man is really a monster. Or really even a man at all.
Du Pont’s numbered relationships and bipolar posturing clue us into a kind of deep-seated mental trauma and gives us a lick of sympathy for the character but it’s the same sympathy we feel towards Artificial Intelligence – like when you yell at Siri for misunderstanding the name of your favorite Mexican restaurant. He’s a character without character; a shell of a being that feeds on praise and trophies like sustenance.
Perhaps it’s the absence of any perceivable inner monologue that makes him such a distressing piece of work. Carrell plays him like a half-lobotized goof with cobwebs and dust bunnies kicking around his noggin with a physical stature to match. Not only is he a tabula rasa of talent, he demands praise for his talentlessness. A scene where du Pont “wins” a wrestling match for the elderly shows he’ll pay off competitors to lose and still do a victory dance in the end zone. There’s something severely twisted about that notion.
And while Du Pont may have traded in his tailored four-piece for a custom gold-and-powder-blue track suit, there’s still a kind of self-dignified manner to the way he slumps himself. The way he demands the love and respect of his wrestling team is that of a neglected boy torturing his stuffed animals. In his mind, he’s Atlas, balancing the future of the world on his checkbook. For Du Pont, it’s praise or die.
With a measured dose of restraint, Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher offers ample insight into a complexly noncomplex character, staging an acting showdown for Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum (the former two should and will earn Oscar nominations.) It’s withdrawn and quiet – Rob Simonsen‘s melancholy score is a spider, trapping us in Miller’s sobering web; absent more often than naught – the kind of Oscar bait that clearly registers as such but is still ultimately devastating. Dandy Mott might be a parody of this type of affluent sociopath but there’s something much more terrifying to du Pont’s long silences and labored breathing, especially when it holds up against archival footage of the man himself.
Some people collect stamps. Others Beanie Babies. John du Pont wanted to collect talent. He wanted to bunch it all up in his verdant Pennsylvania farm and own it for good. The result is the quietly explosive Foxcatcher; a somber rough-and-tumble look at moneyed mannerisms; the banality of clean white tennis shoes. And if it doesn’t leave you shaken and stirred, you might just already be a Bond martini.