When I was a kid my favorite toys were action figures. These were not the dolls my sisters played with, they wore camo, carried guns, and always caught the eye of the lone female action figure I had (Dr. Ellie Sattler from “Jurassic Park” of course). As the only boy amongst my siblings, my narrative interests as I played with toys were very different from those of my sisters. They cared if Barbie finally landed Ken, while in my productions there was always more at stake, most of the time the safety of the entire world.
What drew me in to playing with these toys was the creative freedom I had. They could do anything and go anywhere I needed them to go to advance my story. I used old soda boxes to create elaborate city skylines and when my main villain needed the upper hand on my valiant hero his main mode of capture was freezing my protagonist in a glass of water. This is a good time to thank my mom for putting up with the lack of freezer space.
As time went on, I realized that the fantasy world I’d created in my soda box city didn’t have to be the end. I could put the action figures away and participate in the real world with real people. When we enter Bennett Miller’s hauntingly weird retelling of the real-life events that ended in the murder of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz, the picture he paints of Schultz’s murderer, John du Pont, is that of a man raised in wealth that maybe never separated the six inch plastic soldiers in his life to living breathing people.
“Foxcatcher,” named for the ranch owned by du Pont that became a training ground for US Olympic wrestling in the late 1980’s, exhibits du Pont as a boy trapped in a man’s body. Every move is made to impress his mother that has little to no interest in anything but maintaining the gaudy brass sconce laden world that is their estate. He fills his ranch with action figures in the form of wrestlers led by world and Olympic champion Mark Schultz, whose book the film is based.
Maybe we see du Pont’s life when he has given up on participating in the world and just wants to play with his toys. These wrestlers are things that he can play with and exploit. Mark Schultz has been adamant that there were no sexual interactions with du Pont during his stay at Foxcatcher and I really don’t believe that Miller expresses an explicit homosexual tone in some of the scenes that are called into question. Du Pont’s actions in the film, to me, are exploitation. He is acting out all of his boyhood fantasies with real-life toys. We even see him buying a tank. What little boy doesn’t want to ride in a tank?
Carell’s performance, the shocking murder scene, the dark, foggy environment of the ranch are all frightening aspects to the film but perhaps the most horrifying piece of this true crime puzzle is how old money and a culture of wealth created the monster. The tragedy is that when he was done playing with his toys one Olympic gold medalist was no longer a champion and the other Olympic gold medalist, devoted coach, loving brother, husband, and father was dead. A possession of du Pont’s put back in the toy box because the game didn’t end his way.
“Foxcatcher” is undoubtedly filled with some of the best acting performances of the year. My sympathies to Channing Tatum who will more than likely be overshadowed at Oscar time by Carell in the lead and the awards veteran status of Mark Ruffalo who starred as Dave Schultz. Tatum was perfect and heart-wrenching as Mark Schultz, a role the likes he may never see again.
Tatum’s best scene in the film is an example of the emotional toll exploitation can have. Dealing with a loss and looking into a mirror, unable to recognize the person he has become in the wake of the life he has been leading as du Pont’s lap dog, he snaps and self harms. He spins into self-destruction. He loses his sense of worth he proudly felt at the beginning of the story with the gold medal around his neck. Du Pont’s whittling away of the personhood of those around him leads to an unhappy ending, a reminder of what it looks like to take away the value of another person.