VIFF, one of the largest film festivals in North America, is back. With over 300 films to choose from, VIFF can become a race against yourself to see as many films as possible in the 15 day time frame. Seeing Foxcatcher on this year’s line-up clearly caught my attention. The film, based on a true story, depicts the story of Olympic wrestling champions Mark and David (Dave) Schultz and their fatal relationship with John du Pont, member of one of the wealthiest families in American history. Foxcatcher competed at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and while it did not win the Palme d’or, Bennett Miller took home the prize for Best Director.
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a gold medal Olympian, but you wouldn’t be able to tell given his demeanour. He’s withdrawn, rigid, and definitely prefers to be left alone. His brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) on the other hand, is charming, caring, family oriented and said to be one of the best wrestling tacticians in the sport. That is not to say Mark is not a good wrestler, he is, but it is apparent that he is always being compared to his brother. When he is approached by John du Pont (Steve Carell) to come train on the du Pont’s Foxcatcher Farm, Mark seizes the opportunity to do something on his own and away from his brother’s shadow. Initially it seems like an amazing opportunity. Mark will be paid whatever amount he wants, his living arrangements are provided for and he will have unlimited access to the most up to date training facility he has ever seen. In this new environment, we see Mark flourish, he is affable, focussed, social with his fellow wrestlers and even seems to be taking on a leadership role. Unfortunately, there is the issue of John du Pont.
At first, du Pont comes across as eccentric or maybe even bored. He’s from an extremely wealthy family, he’s overeducated, he does not have a significant other or any children and it seems as though his interest in wrestling is a way to fulfill an abandoned goal of some sort. It also seems like a way to demonstrate his importance or value, especially to his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), who finds many of John’s interests uncouth. His affection for Mark starts out as nurturing or fathering and Mark is very receptive because it allows him, too, to be important and valuable. The relationship quickly disintegrates when John begins to treat Mark as though he is a purchased object in which John can do anything he pleases; a behaviour that seems characteristic of du Pont and is visibly upsetting to Mark.
The Foxcatcher Team starts to unravel and du Pont puts pressure on Mark to convince his brother Dave to join the team. Dave previously refused the invitation because he did not want to uproot his family but du Pont is unphased by this, knowing everyone has a price. Dave and his family eventually move to the ranch which causes friction between the brothers. Well, it causes friction for Mark who feels he will once again be overshadowed by Dave. As the brothers make amends with each other, Dave begins to see the toxicity between Mark and John and also witnesses the unstable behaviour of John. Mark decides to leave the team and the ranch but Dave, who has already uprooted his family once, decides to stay on to coach the Foxcatcher Team. In January of 1996, du Pont drives up to Dave’s residence on the ranch and fatally shoots him.
There has already been a lot of talk praising Carell’s performance. Firstly, he is virtually unrecognisable due to numerous facial prosthetics, coloured contacts and thinning hair. More importantly though, Carell’s performance is both enthralling and unsettling. Enthralling because we have not seen Carell in this manner and unsettling because he is too realistic and with that comes the realisation that du Pont’s behaviour was actually quite disturbing and, probably due to his social and economic status, it was ignored.
There were many uncomfortable moments in the film and I cannot count how many times I turned to my plus one with a look of confusion or concern on my face. But what was most odd to me was the VIFF audience on Thursday night. I do not know if they were unaware what the film was about or if they normally find such concerning behaviour humourous but many scenes were not meant to be funny. For example, du Pont, who is fascinated by and purchases weaponry of any kind, walks into the wrestling gym with a handgun, points it to the ceiling, shoots it and calmly tells the wrestlers to keep up the good work. Maybe I am overreacting but that is not normal behaviour and it is a little distressing. The audience, however, laughed hysterically and a woman seated behind me said aloud “that’s amazing!!” For the life of me, I cannot figure out how that is “amazing.” I realise Steve Carell is known as a comedian but just because a comedian is in a film does not mean the film itself is now a comedy.
What was interesting about the film was that it did not discuss du Pont’s mental illness and I think that was a good call on the part of the writers and directors. Too often, individuals with a mental illness, and who commit violent crimes, are demonised by the public despite the fact those who do not possess a mental illness can and have committed violent acts. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, du Pont plead “not guilty by reasons of insanity” but the plea was rejected and he was instead charged and convicted of “third degree murder but mentally ill.”
Foxcatcher is an intense and absorbing film that was worth every uncomfortable and concerning moment with amazing performances by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum (yes, him too).
Foxcatcher is playing at the Centre for Performing Arts on October 2nd and October 10th. It opens nationwide November 14th.