"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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FOXCATCHER and the Problem of Perspective

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WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD!!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!! READ NO FURTHER IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN A FOXCATCHER VIRGIN!!

In January of 1996, John du Pont, heir to the massive du Pont family fortune, shot and killed Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Dave Schultz in front of the house Schultz lived in with his wife and two children on the sprawling du Pont family compound. I remember when this incident occurred and watching the national news stories about it, which were heightened because of du Pont's famous family name and tremendous wealth and Dave Schultz's standing as an American Olympic hero. After committing the murder John du Pont locked himself in his home and refused to come out. It all had the shades of a sort of O.J. Simpson type of situation. The stand off with police lasted two days before John du Pont was apprehended. It was a riveting, fascinating and incredible story. The one thing I remember most from watching the story unfold in real time was asking myself the question, why would a guy with so much money and power, the things we are taught to value the most here in America, throw it all away by killing an olympic hero? What was the real story? It was a compelling mystery and I always thought that answering that question would make a great movie. Which is why I was so excited to see the story made into the film Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller and starring Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

In the film, Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, an olympic wrestler and Dave Schultz's younger brother, Mark Ruffalo plays Dave Schultz and Steve Carrell plays the eccentric John du Pont. The main focus of the film is the odd relationship between Mark Schultz and John du Pont who is one very strange wrestling enthusiast and philanthropist.

Since nearly twenty years had passed since the murder, I had forgotten the majority of the details of the crime, and only vaguely remembered the basics of the story, and upon seeing the film I realized I had mis-remembered a lot of the actual story, so consequently I was surprised by how the story played out. Usually being surprised by a film is a really good thing, but in the case of Foxcatcher, the reason I was surprised was also the reason the film fails, and that is because the film has a gigantic problem with the basics of storytelling perspective. To illustrate my point I have to give away the end of the film, so even though I've already given a SPOILER ALERT at the top, here is your final SPOILER ALERT. 

The biggest issue with the film is that it never comes to terms with it's perspective problem. The film is shown from Mark Schultz's perspective. We see everything play out from his point of view. Miller uses the camera to show us what Mark sees through his eyes, and we hear what Mark hears, we experience the world as Mark experiences it. This technique creates a connection between the viewer and Mark. We empathize with him, we root for him, we project ourselves onto him. The choice to do this is a really critical error in telling this story. The filmmaker had basically four perspectives to choose from in telling the story. There was Dave Schultz's perspective, John du Pont's perspective, Mark Schultz's perspective and there is the 'God' perspective, where the audience sees everything and knows everything. Miller chose Mark's perspective, which to me is the weakest perspective to choose of the four because in reality, Mark is a secondary character in the story, but in the film they make him the main character. The main characters in the real-life drama are Dave Schultz and John du Pont. They are also the more interesting characters. That is not to say that Mark isn't interesting, it is just to say that he isn't AS interesting as Dave Schultz and John du Pont.

An example of how Miller establishes that this is Mark's story, and why he shouldn't have, is one sequence where Mark, who at this point in the story has turned against his one time benefactor du Pont, must work out extra hard prior to a weigh-in in order to lose the twelve pounds he gained in a self-loathing binge the night before, in order to be allowed to wrestle. In the sequence Mark rides a stationary bike in the bowels of an arena trying to sweat out the weight while brother Dave encourages him. Then we see du Pont enter the hallway in front of them and Mark is obviously unhappy to see him, so Dave intercepts du Pont before he can get into ear shot of Mark and he has a conversation with him. Just like Mark, we don't get to hear that conversation, we only get to see it occur through Mark's eyes and through the glass of the door. That would have been a great scene to watch and listen to. The older brother protecting his little brother from the strange du Pont, but also keeping du Pont happy because du Pont was Dave's benefactor at this point too, and Dave has a wife and young kids to feed. We don't get to see that scene up close or hear it at all, that is the choice director Bennett Miller made. That is okay, and could have worked in the film if the actual, real-life story turned out another way, with du Pont shooting Mark instead of Dave (which is what I thought would happen since I mis-remebered the true story and since the film was showing us everything through Mark's perspective), or with Mark at least being present for the shooting. But it didn't. In the end, when du Pont shoots and kills Dave, Mark is all the way across the country when it happens, and entirely off-screen.  In the climax, we see everything that Mark couldn't see after spending two hours seeing only what he could see, and on top of that, we are never even allowed to see Mark's reaction to the news of the murder. We never get any closure with the story because we have been forced, through the choice of the director, to project ourselves onto Mark for the first two hours of the film, now in the final act of the film, we are abruptly and jarringly pulled from that perspective and thrown into the "God" perspective of seeing all. The film ends with Mark in an arena about to go into an octagon and compete in an MMA fight, but as the scene begins he sits backstage waiting to go on. I kept thinking someone would come up and say "Mark, phone call" and he'd go to a pay phone and get the news that the creepy du Pont had killed his brother, but we never got that.  That scene never happens and it is such a massive mistake on such a basic storytelling level that is is absolutely shocking. The ending of the film undermines the entire choice to use Mark's perspective to tell the story. It makes absolutely no storytelling or filmmaking sense. Never getting to see the impact of Dave's death on Mark is not only a truly baffling filmmaking decision, but an unforgivably wasted opportunity.

Part of why that is a wasted opportunity is because it would have been a great scene to see Channing Tatum sink his teeth into. I must admit, I have never really understood the Channing Tatum phenomenon. I know women go crazy for him, but I just don't get it (not surprisingly), and I have never seen him be anything other than passable in terms of acting on film. I don't think he's terrible, I just don't think he's ever been very good, or much of anything for that matter. But to his great credit, he does a really good job as Mark Schultz, and I would've appreciated seeing him tackle the scene where he learns of his brother's murder. What I did really admire about his performance was that he fully committed to the part physically. He had a very distinct gait and carriage and even transformed how he held his jaw and forehead. When you are Channing Tatum, you don't have to do stuff like that. He could have just gotten all ripped physically and been a piece of eye candy, but instead he decided to actually become another person and inhabit a character. I commend him for the hard work and putting thought and time into it. It is a sad thing to say, but an actor actually committing to their work and doing their job is worthy of praise in the Hollywood of today.

Mark Ruffalo is fantastic as the older, and more successful, brother, Dave Schultz. His complicated relationship with his younger and more emotionally fragile brother Mark is a really rich and layered piece of work. We don't get to see too much of his relationship with du Pont, which is a shame because it really would have been fascinating to see him handle the eccentricities as deftly as possible while trying to keep the money train flowing in order to provide for his family. Again, another wasted opportunity that is all the more glaring since the majority of the film is undermined by the final fifteen minutes. I think using Dave's perspective to tell the story would have been a much wiser storytelling choice and also would have let us see much more of the subtle and intricate performance that Ruffalo delivers.

Steve Carrell's work as John du Pont is good but I have to say, through no fault of his own, it feels incomplete. Carrell embraces the oddities and eccentricities of du Pont, and there are lots of them, and he believably transforms himself into the character, but once again, the choice of using Mark's perspective to tell the story robs us of the chance to really get to know du Pont, to get into his head and to understand him on anything other than a surface level. I would have loved to see just a single scene of John du Pont by himself in a room, for instance. Carrell is much more than just a comedic actor, and I would have really loved to see him get the opportunity to do more with such a fantastic part, but sadly the script does't permit it and the film suffers for it. A really fascinating film would have been one told from John du Pont's perspective because he is the real mystery in all of this. The film never really even approaches the topic of why, exactly, John du Pont killed Dave Schultz. I have done a bunch of reading on the murder since seeing the film, and the more I read about it, the more obvious it is that the story of John du Pont, and the twisted and dark world residing in his head, is the real treasure that the filmmakers should have gone after.  But I guess they didn't have the courage to reach for that brass ring. Their film is so much the lesser for it.

Foxcatcher is one of those films that really could have been great. It is a fascinating story with really unique characters and is populated by a cast of very talented and interesting actors. It has all sorts of intriguing issues boiling just underneath it's surface…America's corruption, moral decay, and hypocrisy, class warfare, the degradation people will sink to in order to get money, fame or success.  But sadly, the film, not unlike John du Pont the man, is a failure, and not unlike the murder of the great Dave Schultz, I think it is a senseless and tragic waste.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .