Few people might have thought of throwing Michael Scott, the Hulk, and Jenko into a movie together. Even fewer might have thought it would be good.
Foxcatcher is a sort-of biopic, sort-of dark drama that tells the true story of Olympic athletes Mark and Dave Shultz, and the madman of a wrestling coach John du Pont. As the film begins, Mark and Dave are the Olympic wrestling champs of 1984. Dave is enjoying being a wrestling coach, as well as a good relationship with his family. Mark, on the other hand, is having an early version of a midlife crisis, finding little to do other than training with his brother and speaking at elementary schools. So when a mysterious offer comes in from du Pont to form a new wrestling team, possibly for competition in the next Olympics, he takes it up with great anticipation.
There aren’t a whole lot of plot developments to speak of beyond that, because that’s not the real focus of the film. Rather than being a plot-driven sports movie, the story is a portrait of madness, and an exploration of how the ambitious Mark Schultz and his loyal older brother get pulled into what slowly becomes the raving psychosis of John du Pont. Those are strong words, so allow me to explain them in greater detail.
John du Pont is the heir to an extremely lucrative family fortune. He’s also an avid wrestling fan, and the only person, so far as the film tells us, who comes to Mark first instead of his older brother. The relationship between Mark and Dave in the film is close but occasionally strained. The idea of Mark’s living in Dave’s shadow is only mentioned once, maybe twice, in a glossed over form. Even then, it’s unnecessary. The actors’ interactions tell us all we need to know about that (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo have remarkable chemistry in this film). And it is in that manner that John du Pont reels Mark in.
As they progress throughout the training and recruitment process, other things begin to jump out at us. du Pont’s security staff is almost militaristic. He becomes obsessed with bringing Dave on board, and knocks on Mark’s door in the middle of the night asking why there isn’t anyone training in the gym. By the time his extreme narcissism gives way to demands for his public image to be boosted and drug abuse enters the picture, we’re hardly surprised at who this man turned out to be.
This portrait of madness is painted in a way that few filmmakers have managed. Director Bennett Miller shows a mastery over the “show don’t tell” mantra, and the film’s three stars handle the task with expert precision. One particularly poignant scene shows Dave (Ruffalo) being interview for a documentary on du Pont, and when asked to talk about how du Pont is a mentor to him, can manage no more than an awkward “He’s a sort of mentor to me,” without bringing himself to make eye contact with the camera.
Were this a film blog, I’d likely end with little other than praise for the film, particularly as a directorial achievement. But this isn’t just a film blog – it’s a blog focused on viewing entertainment, and story, through the lens of a Christian worldview. As a Christian who views film as an effective medium for message and who believes, as our friends at Reel World Theology would say, entertainment is not mindless, it’s hard to find a takeaway point here.
Or, I should say, a takeaway point as intended by the film’s makers. But as I’ve contemplated the film, there’s a theme that I believe is a core part of this story, which has some application into the lives of Christians. I mentioned earlier that this portrait of madness on the part of du Pont was slow and gradual. The final reveal of his psychotic nature doesn’t come as a surprise because of the build-up, but it probably would have surprised us, had we jumped straight from start to finish. In Mark’s initial meeting with du Pont, he seems like a very kind and generous man. So what gives?
The lesson is this: evil is frequently packaged in pretty wrapping paper. On first glance, du Pont appears to be a good person who appeals to Mark’s feeling that he’s been unrecognized in comparison to his brother. It seems like a good opportunity for him to make a name for himself, and he even asks Dave to come on, too. It appears to be the best of both worlds. How frequently does sin look good dressed up as virtue? Lust as love. Bloodlust as justice. Prideful ambition as long-awaited reward. It turns out that Miller’s portrait of madness is exactly what a true portrait of sin looks like: appealing and generous in the beginning, hideous and bloody in the end.