‘Foxcatcher’ Rightly Sacrificed Mark Schultz’s Story to Craft a Sharp American Allegory


“Everything I’ve ever said positive about the movie I take back. I hate it. i hate it. i hate it. I hate it. i hate it. i hate it. I hate it,” Mark Schultz, the wrestler and subject of Foxcatcher, tweeted last week. Also: “YOU CROSSED THE LINE [Bennett] MILLER. WE’RE DONE. YOU’RE CAREER IS OVER. YOU THINK I CAN’T DO IT. WATCH ME.” (Schultz has since removed the tweets and substituted them for a far more civil Facebook post.)

Indeed, Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller may have crossed some factual lines, but what he mostly did throughout the film was walk along the fascinating precipice of fact and fictional insinuation. What incensed Schultz about Foxcatcher was not the film itself — as it seems it wasn’t until well after he saw the movie that he got upset — but critics’ interpretation of its impeccably structured suggestions. These suggestions, while never elevated to become full-on assertions, are the film’s lifeblood. Put them together and they make a metaphorical map — by fictionalizing one American crime — of the structure of much larger American crimes against the working class.

Schultz’s argument about “gladly [going] to any lengths to protect and safeguard the integrity and truth of [his] story,” while understandable on a personal level (as he’s defending his image against a film that manipulated his name and story for sharp cultural critique), misses the point of most artistic renderings of “real” human lives. After Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There was released, for example, no one questioned whether Bob Dylan was formerly a black child who grew up to be an androgynous Cate Blanchett lookalike who was also a Richard Gere lookalike called Billy the Kid, a pastor/Christian Bale lookalike, an actor/Heath Ledger lookalike, and a possible criminal named Arthur Rimbaud.

Sometimes films that draw inspiration from real subjects are so abstract that their depictions go unquestioned: accuracy was never their concern, even on a superficial level. Like many other movies based on real people, Foxcatcher is not concerned with Mark Schultz, real person with real feelings to express on a real Twitter feed, so much as it is with how wealthy hobbyist “coach” John du Pont’s destruction of Schultz’s family could represent something larger. Unlike I’m Not There, the film doesn’t look or seem abstract — it follows a very linear narrative, uses real names, and is predominantly punctuated by real events. Because of this, viewers seem more inclined to demand accuracy, and to think that inaccuracy undercuts the film’s worth (see also: the recent Selma “controversy”). But Foxcatcher, like most films, works on two levels: it has its life of absolute “realities” seen on-screen and one of suggested, ambiguous, or metaphorical “realities” off-screen. What separates Foxcatcher from most narrative films is that its off-screen realities may be its most important. I’d go so far as to say that the movie’s value lies in the very inaccuracies reflected by its omissions and stylized insinuations.

The most crucial among these is the way Foxcatcher tries to grasp at the motivations behind du Pont’s murder of Mark Schultz’s brother, Dave — the film suggests he was driven by obsession with Mark and jealousy over Dave’s superior, more intimate, mentorship. It should be noted that the film never once mentions du Pont’s diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia. An article in Slate pointed out the discrepancies between the film and Mark Schultz’s first-person account in the book Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold:

In the book, Schultz describes many bizarre stories he heard from Dave and others about du Pont’s increasingly erratic behavior. Du Pont believed there were spirits and spies in the mansion, he “ordered treadmills removed from the training center because he believed their clocks were transporting him back in time,” he communicated with rocks.

It says a lot about the movie’s aspirations toward allegory that it neglected to explore this side of du Pont (which was likely a primary cause of the murder): pinning the blame on madness would have made it harder to blame a class-based system of injustices — the case wouldn’t have seemed universal if it all boiled down to, “the murderer also talked to rocks.” Rather, strictly through the suggestions of clever juxtaposition and selective camera angles, Foxcatcher homoeroticizes the relationship between du Pont and Schultz: du Pont’s role as benefactor/mentor stands in for all other forms of dominance. Though the film at no point reveals an explicitly sexual relationship between du Pont and Schultz, its masterful use of erotic signifiers left me certain that it was interpreting the relationship, either metaphorically or literally, as having the dynamics of a rape.

The key to unlocking this film seems to come from an early moment: When Channing Tatum’s Schultz first enters the Foxcatcher ranch — where he’ll train, where he’ll live, and where his brother will ultimately be murdered — he pisses. We hear the intensity of his stream, but what we see is a close-up of floral wallpaper. In this juxtaposition, the film foreshadows the collisions of all ugly factors in the contemporary American situation that collide at the film’s tragic climax: the wallpaper represents a stagnant, antiquated wealth, a now-unattainable American dream. It’s also an image of repression: in the film, at least, du Pont seems to be repressing his lust for men. Smothered in his mother’s decorations, he may have been socialized to identify with his mother’s urges. (To suggest this as a homophobic assertion on the film’s part, as some critics have, seems akin to suggesting that there’s something wrong with a man having urges that are socially ascribed to femininity — as a gay man, I don’t eschew the homoerotic reading of the film for this reason. Rather than “homophobic,” the film seems repression-phobic.)

With his staunchly Conservative upbringing, Miller’s version of du Pont would likely have been scorned for the very desires his upbringing spurred, and so he seeks fulfillment in unscrupulous, exploitative ways. The outrageously loud sound of Schultz’s piss also suggests the bestialization of the working class: the way that, within this household, his physical strength coupled with his vulnerability to manipulation — stemming from his financial need and educational disadvantage compared to du Pont — will both be worshiped and exploited.

The raging, Olympic-level piss also hints at the character’s own skewed, and illusory, American ambition — the ideal America continues to perpetuate to keep its poor hopeful and in check: the idea of “gold-medal” #1-ness — an idea that Conservative America would like to suggest is attainable through the charity-oriented and/or trickle-down help of the upper class (as opposed to, say, higher taxation). It’s an ideal the Olympics — with its rewards bestowed on a chosen few (who could have come from any background! And who made it!) — also, to some extent, perpetuate. At one point, after du Pont asks him what he wants, Schultz actually says, “I want to be #1.” The rest of the film shows what happens to he who dares attempt upward mobility here.

Foxcatcher might not seem like such an obvious allegory were it not about the Olympics — were du Pont’s own goal not to be the father of American perfection, to be something of an American god overseeing his herculean creations. But because this is the case, the film almost needed to give in to its allegorical potential. In Foxcatcher, du Pont and Schultz want to represent America, and so their characters do just that.

After this first, fraught wallpaper image, we get a slew of other hints at the increasingly insidious power dynamic between du Pont and Schultz. This culminates in a cryptic scene where du Pont comes knocking on Schultz’s window in the middle of the night, while Schultz is sleeping. He leads Schultz to a portrait gallery in the mansion. There, the two wrestle, but what we see, mostly, is a close up of Channing Tatum’s face seeming to capitulate to some horror while Steve Carell is on top of him. The camera deliberately obfuscates the parts we’d need to see to confirm whether their entanglement is or isn’t sexual. Because “is” or “isn’t” ultimately doesn’t matter. Again, it’s the metaphorical implication that matters. And the implication is that, in some way, this man’s personhood has slowly and meticulously been invaded, violated, and made a puppet in a rich man’s fantasy. It’s made all the more obvious, in a somewhat hilarious twist, that after this scene, Tatum’s character appears with blond tips, looking like a pornographic fantasy of a pool boy, cutting du Pont’s hair. He doesn’t wear those tips happily: at this point, the trauma wrought by du Pont is already visible.

In a system where the idea of helping a select few talented, underprivileged people contributes to a sense of social exoneration for the wealthy, the sum of this film’s implications seems to be: “You may feel like you’re winning, but you’re getting fucked.” Foxcatcher masquerades as a personal tragedy — and gets us emotionally engaged as such — but uses ambiguous visual cues to create a second, social-satirical life. It avoids du Pont’s schizophrenia and hints at fictitious dynamics because it doesn’t really care about Schultz’s true story. It cares about a larger true story. Of course, it’s odd and maybe somewhat fitting that the real Schultz has been used as a pawn in an excellent film, just as he was used as a pawn in du Pont’s desperate delusions of grandeur. Schultz has every right to get upset (even if it’s odd that his outburst came so late): he was misrepresented.

But the film’s sacrifice made for one of the sharpest American critiques in recent memory. Du Pont took advantage of Schultz’s desire to win: the gold would have gone to Schultz, but it would have made du Pont into the god he wanted to become. Once again, the accolades for Foxcatcher were never going to be for Schultz. If Foxcatcher wins a Best Picture Oscar, and I hope it does, because it’s really that good, it certainly, and perhaps tragically, will not be Schultz’s gold.