I was deeply impressed with Foxcatcher, which tells the story of eccentric money man John Du Pont, scion of one America’s most well-known wealthy families, and the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, Olympians of working-class origins. Much of the discussion of the film in reviews casts it as a parable about the sense of entitlement among American oligarchs, and while that is not an inaccurate gloss of the film, Foxcatcher struck me at a deeper level. I saw it as a myth of the devouring of innocence that looks back to The Great Gatsby, and even further back to the Greek tragedy of Hippolytus, the story of a noble youth destroyed by his step-mother’s lust.
The innocents in the tale, the Schultz brothers, are devotees of a craft: the ancient art of Greco-Roman wrestling. Mark (Channing Tatum), the younger, is the archetypal initiate: he is wholly devoted to the development of his skill. We see him in his cheerless apartment dining on Ramen noodles: he is a twenty-first century ascetic, dedicated to a practice that we come to understand is at the core of his being. In the moment when he tells his brother that he extracted “the largest number I could think of”, $20,000 a year, from his fabulously wealthy future patron, we learn that Mark is lost in the the world outside the gym, but Channing Tatum’s soulful silences, and the opening sequence in which we watch Mark wrestle with a dummy, make it clear that the world inside the gym is world enough for Mark.
Not so for Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who is a gifted wrestler but also a father and husband. More importantly for the story, he is a gifted mentor. He is a true master of the craft in which he instructs Dave and others, but also possesses the psychological insight needed to develop young male athletes. He is gentle and nurturing with his charges, a far cry from the “tough coach” cinematic stereotype. It’s clear that this light touch is exactly what the sensitive and troubled Mark requires to blossom.
The delicacy of the brothers’ loving relationship, devoted acolyte and wise adept of an ancient craft, is what makes the growing, insidious menace implicit in John DuPont’s patronage exquisitely discomforting. I won’t say more than this about the story to avoid significant spoilers, but I don’t need to say any more to get at what I want to say. What is important about this film is its understanding of the rarity and fragility of the deep bond of trust and love between dedicated students of a craft (such as acting!) and the mentors to whom such students decide to entrust themselves. The film further understands that such relationships usually require some kind of context in which they can exist: often an institution of some kind. But institutions sometimes attract those whose true priorities are power and self-aggrandizement, so serious students and teachers who seek refuge in such a context are often subject to the caprices and whims of administrators with no understanding of, or interest in, the priorities of the teacher and student. The desire to learn and the desire to share understanding through teaching have a purity to them. It is the film’s great achievement to render this purity in the brothers’ relationship on the one hand, and the besieged status of this purity in a world whose ultimate priority is the consolidation of power on the other.