Emptiness and Obsession in Foxcatcher

This movie is something of a landmark for me. Its effect is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. In general, films are meant to be watched. In a horror movie there are lots of jump scares designed to make the viewer get a thrill, maybe hide their eyes for a few moments…but generally they are eager to get back to the screen and experience it again; we love that feeling. In comedies, there are moments designed to make us feel awkward to the level of intensity that we hide our eyes, making us uncomfortable for a moment, but the moment also makes us crack up. In dramatic films, there are moments focused on the reactions of people surrounding a subject who is being outed; some flaw of personality or ability; and we experience what those people do, feeling the urge to crawl under a table, but getting the revelation along with them.

In Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, I am completely alone and uncomfortable almost all the way through. I could never breathe easy, didn’t even feel like it was a movie in the sense of entertainment. This was ok because I’m interested in something so different, but I’ve never wanted to get away from a movie so intensely while being rapt in it. I don’t think I’ve ever looked away from a movie as if I’d walked in on a classmate or coworker getting yelled at, for so long. It wasn’t just a few seconds of holy shit… there were entire scenes; two, three, five minute long sequences where I was physically and emotionally uncomfortable. That is incredible. What is unique is that it wasn’t in conjunction with any character, there was no sympathy for a victim being yelled at, or interrupted, or shocked, or confused. The effect was strictly weighing on my shoulders, and it felt more like the shock of being the only one recognizing the absurdity going on on screen.

The film is about money, power, recognition, respect, loneliness, desperation, emptiness, jealousy. A person works for months, years, toward a single goal. Perhaps she even accomplishes the goal and there is something on the shelf to show for it. But after that moment, nothing resonates as strongly, there is no recreation of that moment, it simply seems to drift further away. The memory is kept alive by family, friends, maybe film footage. But what if the room were empty? What if it were full of strangers? Soon the urge to do it again comes along, and you see people fighting towards the next level. Perhaps they don’t make it but find solace in sharing their knowledge and experience as a coach, touching the lives of other people fighting towards the goal. There it feels like home, with people who are in a familiar place.

Unfortunately, the story of Foxcatcher is about the distortion of what gives satisfaction in success. The trophy itself holds no magic dust of happiness, the judges are not interested in knowing you personally, next year you may be honored, but you will not be the headliner. Everyone’s mind is on themselves and the new champions working themselves forward. The idea of success in a distorted, obsessed mind becomes dressed in the most expensive, beautiful clothes imaginable with an aura of happiness and the promise of satisfaction. It grows bigger until we can’t see reality behind it. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is doomed from the start when we see him consumed with jealousy, resentment, and obsession. Rage is powerful, but probably not strong enough to pull an athlete all the way up onto the platform at the Olympic games. It is irrational, unstable. He becomes blinded by his ambition and does not accept the support of his brother, instead falling into the idyllic fantasies of John du Pont without seeing the warning signs of a truly empty and desperate mind.

The film is disturbingly silent throughout. The use of score is used sparingly, and almost feels as if its pages were torn and the musicians are tentatively playing from memory, scared, or maybe realizing midway through that something painted like virtue is actually naïve idiocy, but they can’t stop because no one else is… The uneasiness underlying the film is brought out through effective but under-the-radar direction. It gives us the key points but, like John, seems to be only figuring things out a moment later, filling in the gaps on impulse and instinct from frame to frame. The dull grandeur of the du Pont estate reeks of age and meaninglessness. Especially the trophy room. The celebratory gatherings with the team in John’s mansion are held up by a stubborn thread in the minds of all present that this has to be just like it is supposed to be; we can ignore weirdness and the feeling that this isn’t right because the curtains have already been lifted and the orchestra isn’t stopping for a moment. We will go with this. If we are wrong…we can’t be wrong. Everything would fall apart, and we would have to accept the fact that we have no idea what we’re doing in this life…

Steve Carell is such a fine choice for this role. He looks desperate, lost, and confused with a tenacious consistency. His character is stripped gradually throughout the film until what is behind his stoic, socially clueless person is revealed. He seems to have gone through nearly his whole life without a single challenge to himself as a person, and as a result, one is never formed. But the fact that he is a human being eats at him to insanity. He is aware enough to know that there is nothing beneath him, nothing ahead of him, unless he creates it, and without any ability, his only asset is cash. This serves him sickeningly well. It is horrifying how easily life falls in to place for him as he continues to hide himself with money. Even those who see through him bend at the appearance of a checkbook. This is the absurdity of the world we live in.

I have to say that I saw a little bit of Michael Scott come out in a scene with Channing where he says his friends usually call him, “Eagle…or golden eagle…or John, one of those.” One of the few moments that made me laugh instead of cringe.

But I believe this was the idea. The experience of Foxcatcher is intense, and it resonates. It made me feel sick to my stomach, but it also motivated me to plunge into the sensations of mind and thought that were new to me. Even the most fantastical or caricatured emotion in art distills truth at its core.

“The unfortunate truth about Foxcatcher is that we were all complicit.  We all knew that John was unstable and many suspected that he was dangerous.  Few spoke up and no one took any action.  A good man lost his life and a sport was scarred by tragedy, sorrow and dishonor.

Human beings are incompetent risk managers.  We readily accept present accommodations and fail to account for the price to be paid in the future.  When calamity strikes, we vow to be smarter next time, but seldom are.  Life goes on, new ambitions arise and we try not to think too much about it.

The lessons of Foxcatcher, and many other things, never seem to be learned.”

-Greg Satell, Forbes, 11/22/2014 (read the full article here)

Emily Crawford-Margison, Film writer at Seroword

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  1. I love this – very relatable and well written! Foxcatcher is definitely unique and was a great hit!

  2. I am sorry to have not seen it, I am going to try to find it. Thank you it sounds like a good one.

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