John Steinbeck wryly observed that most Americans disdain socialism as if they were “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” whose ship had yet to come in.
He had no idea just how many millions of hard-working self-made millionaires the country would someday spawn — how many would actually attain that American dream, and how many would come to believe that this world is designed for them. Still others would inherit their wealth.
In “Foxcatcher” we meet one of them: John du Pont, an heir to a family fortune who has his entire way of life bought and paid for — every win, every success at school, even his friends. Du Pont, portrayed in a career-changing turn by Steve Carell, is a desperately lonely man. He is the walking embodiment of the notion that money can’t buy happiness, nor can it buy love, nor can it buy admiration or real success, particularly for someone whose wealth is entirely inherited. Someone with nothing much to work for, live for, strive for, nothing left to achieve for himself.
Du Pont’s interest in wrestling was supposed to be an achievement he made for himself. Living under the shadow of his arrogant mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, du Pont fumbles around while people let him succeed because he’s so phenomenally wealthy.
The film’s heat is set to low simmer as you head for the climax — and because the story is pulled from real-life headlines, viewers will likely know what’s coming. But Miller, with three films so far, usually saves his best for the last few minutes of his movies, and “Foxcatcher” is no exception.
You wait and you wait and you wait, and then it pays off. The pay-off here is more subtle than you might expect. But it is far more haunting, because this is a story that doesn’t have closure or uplift. Lives are ruined.
What drives John du Pont’s obsession with Mark is a bit of a mystery. There seems to be physical attraction, perhaps even love. But du Pont doesn’t really know how to have relationships. All he knows how to do is buy and control, then pretend he has made something with his own hands. He knows it somewhere deep inside, and it eats away at him. Still he wants people to think of him as a ruler, a leader, a golden eagle.
Carell will likely be the focus of much of the praise for “Foxcatcher.” He disappears into du Pont, presenting a dark and mostly unlikable lead. His mere presence is unsettling.
But his cold, heartless demeanor is offset by the other two leads, the extremely likable Ruffalo and Tatum. Tatum challenges himself here, unearthing vulnerability we’ve always known he had. He punishes himself for letting his integrity be bought and sold. Ruffalo gives the film its solid moral center: You do good work, you don’t get bought off, you stand up for what’s right. And it gets you nothing.
What does this say about American culture overall? If you want to go digging, you can find an indictment in “Foxcatcher.” But you could also see it as simply a story that probes an unhealthy relationship with a psychotic man. Miller has chosen, as he often does, to leave it up to you.
What happened is not up for debate, but why it happened remains a mystery. It bears repeating that it isn’t common in American films to see this kind of ambiguity.
The movie is produced by another child of privilege, Megan Ellison. With her support of substantial filmmakers like Miller, Kathryn Bigelow and David O. Russell, Ellison is an avenging angel, of sorts, working to fix some of the problems that plague modern-day Hollywood. She is the reverse example of someone like du Pont. Her vast inherited wealth has motivated her to support the arts, which serves as a meaningful counter to the film itself. With the freedom of expression she provides, we are treated once again to a film without any outside pressure to dumb it down.
Echoes of the American dream have long obsessed Miller, who seems incapable of making a bad film. “Capote” looked at the artist obsessed with story. “Moneyball” looks at the retired baseball star reaching for a longshot moment of glory. Now “Foxcatcher,” his third one-word title, is about grasping for something that isn’t really there: achievement without hard work, the self-centered satisfaction of destroying another life just because you want to.
In a rigged hunt, where the fox is let out of the cage so the privileged participants can pretend to catch it, who’s to say that killing the fox isn’t fair?