R. 134 minutes.
Directed by Bennett Miller.
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo.
Released November 14, 2014.
Cauliflower Ear – (n.) distortion of the cartilage of the outer ear as the result of an injury. If the injury causes bleeding between the cartilage and the skin, it produces a smooth and rounded purplish swelling. Accumulated clotted blood, if not removed, is transformed into scar tissue, causing permanent, oddshaped-thickening of the outer ear.
There is a Greek sculpture known as the “Boxer of Quirinal” that dates back to approximately 330 B.C. And this statue is known for its incredible detail of what would be today’s equivalent of a UFC or Mixed Martial Arts fighter. He is shown with a broken nose, busted knuckles, a fat lip—and cauliflower ear. So this injury has been around as long as people have been fighting each other, yet the 2014 movie Foxcatcher is the only movie that comes to mind that went through the detail of giving their characters cauliflower ears. In the fighter’s world, the misshapen ear isn’t ugly or embarrassing but more than anything it is seen as a badge of honor, or a trophy of sorts. If anyone has spent any time in an MMA gym or has gone to wrestling or jiu-jitsu tournaments they could attest that there is enough cauliflower to start a farmers market. So why do these movies, great movies—Warrior, Redbelt…and the not so great movies like Here Comes the Boom—so often neglect this detail? It is one of the subtleties that makes this movie great.
With an obsession with amateur sports (mainly wrestling), millionaire and philanthropist John Du Pont built part of his family’s Foxcatcher Farm into a training facility in the mid-1980s. Shortly after the facility was established, Du Pont brought Olympic gold medal wrestlers Mark and David Schultz onto the farm to train and coach. And one cold day in January of 1996 John Du Pont for no known reason shot David Schultz in his driveway in front of David’s wife—killing him. This movie focuses on the years the Schultz brothers spent on the Foxcatcher ranch. And the rising tensions that lead to the death of David Schultz.
The movie is a good study in obsession and greed and temptation. How money can buy friends and trophies and praise. About the emptiness in buying these things. A study in drugs and mental disintegration. And how a man can start to collapse in on himself and people will let him because they don’t want to upset their cash flow. It’s a study in being led astray for good and bad reasons. Out of love. Out of manipulation.
David at first turns down all invitations to Foxcatcher because he doesn’t want to uproot his family. He doesn’t want them to move year after year like he and Mark had to growing up. Mark goes to Foxcatcher first. Feeling trapped in his brother’s shadow he jumps at the chance to be his own man. Have his accolades not be lumped in with his brother. To finally break free. And with John Du Pont making statements such as, “Mark, you are so much more than your brother,” Mark falls for it. And slowly he gets dragged down and starts to become undone. Living a clean life, maintaining weight, staying healthy—slowly Mark starts to lose all of it. Dives into drugs and alcohol and his promise and potential is stripped from him. And it is clear the destructive hold John Du Pont has on him.
From the start of the film it is clear to see that John Du Pont is not in his right mind. He seems to have no real emotion. No connection with the world. He wished he wrestled and desperately wants acceptance with the boys. To be one of them. This desire flip-flops as he realizes he doesn’t fully need their acceptance, because he owns them. But again this is all emptiness.
The movie is slow. And it is quiet. To me it is refreshing—movies are too safe these days. Even when in the present day binge the media has with its torture-porn horror slasher flicks, even those are too safe. Why? No risk and they deliver to the audience exactly what they want. And what they paid for. No surprises. No thinking. You don’t leave the theater disturbed in any real sense, they might leave going, “Man that was so messed up when that girl had to take out her own eye,” but you’re not torn up inside. You’re not driving home wondering why things happened. Looking into yourself and questioning yourself. This movie has no spinning camera, no flashing quick edits. There is no witty and snippy dialogue. The conversations are real; they flub and lose their words. They sit there on camera and think of how they want to phrase what they want to say. Sometimes they say nothing. In that sense it is hyper real and that makes it hard to swallow. Many people won’t be able take it. It’s “too real” and “too heavy” so there is the risk with that. But it’s refreshing. A movie that isn’t scared not to make a ton of profit. A movie that is just about making a great, solid movie.
The acting is tremendous. Each character brings their own strengths. Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz is like a pot on a stove that is boiling and giving all the signs that the water is in danger of boiling over, but no one notices. And Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz brings this unbelievable calm to the movie and to his brother. He is like the wooden spoon placed across a boiling pot to keep it from overflowing. The only one who can read his brother, see the subtleties in his brother’s behavior. And knows how to reach him and calm him.
Steve Carell plays John Du Pont. This is a selection that baffled a lot of people, even critics. It makes sense to me. I am aware that people look at him and they see Michael Scott from The Office and they see Gru from Despicable Me. And his role in Anchor Man. They didn’t think it possible for him to play such a serious role. It isn’t strange to me because Steve Carell is a character actor. When we think of character actors we often think of Daniel Day Lewis needing to be called “Mr. President” on the set of Lincoln, and Christian Bale becoming anorexic for his role in The Machinist, but Steve Carell is also very much a character actor. The thing is he just does it so well that people cease to see the character and assume he’s just being himself. But Steve Carell is no more Michael Scott in his real life than he is John Du Pont. Just another character for him to play. People were surprised when Jerry Lewis was in King of Comedy, and Jim Carey played in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—but a character is a character, and sometimes the comedians are just able to do it so well because they are used to diving that deep to become someone new for the camera. Carell is borderline unrecognizable in both acting and appearance. He certainly deserves an Oscar nod, if not a win. But the thing with the acting is exactly what makes the movie great: The subtleties.
In any sort of grappling sport, there is a type of bonding that happens. Definitely a level of intimacy. It is unlike a lot of other sports, even other contact sports. In boxing and kick-boxing, Tae Kwon Do, karate, etc., you want to stay on the outside, stick and move, bob and weave. Avoid. With grappling it’s the opposite. You don’t want to give the other guy space. You want to pin them. Climb unto their back. Keep pressure on them. You can get a penalty for stalling if you avoid contact and confrontation. You sweat on each other. The positions you end up in look sexual. And in many ways there is an incredible intimacy. The movie does a great job of showing it. In a good and bad light. The intimacy between the brothers was displayed in the simple way they warmed up when training together. I heard in an interview that the filmmakers removed minutes of dialogue because of the simple way they stretched each other’s arms and necks in quietness. Beyond words. And in the way they don’t talk when they wrestle. Just business. There is a great scene in the middle of the movie where Mark is pushed to the breaking point and David walks up to him; Mark sitting on the bed defeated, broken. And David clubs his head with the hardest slap I’ve seen in the movie. Then clubs him again. Then sits next to him and hugs him and promises him that he’ll get him through what he’s going through. He lights a fire under him and pushes him. That’s not found in many other sports.
But in the opposite side of the spectrum, John Du Pont is not a wrestler. He’s not part of that inner circle. And he can’t buy his way in. He asks Mark to teach him how to wrestle, introduces Mark to drugs. And derails all this great potential. Mark wasn’t a no one, he was already a gold medalist. John Du Pont started to rob and strip that from him. The best scene that shows this is when John goes to Mark late in the night and asks him to practice wrestling, and the filmmaker shows this training session, in the positions they were working in and in the out-of-focus hand-held style and Mark’s lifeless quitting. It looks in every sense—a sexual assault. Which in many ways, it is.
As I said before: subtleties. Yes wrestling/grappling can be brutal. Slams and dumps and take-downs, clubbing the face. But beyond that there is a great subtlety. Minor triggers to watch out for. So often my coach tells me things like, “Right there! When you see his weight shift to his front foot, that’s when you shoot!” or “When you feel his body start to move to reach for your hand, that’s when you switch your weight.” There is this great sense of the minute in wrestling. And this movie took it into consideration and applied that to the characters and the film itself. I talked about the ears already. But one thing I loved is that they captured the fighter so well. These minor things they captured so well.
There is a scene right in the beginning, when the brothers are training and clubbing each other’s faces and going for take-downs, and David catches a headbutt and gets a bloody nose. We’ve seen similar scenes in other movies but usually the scene resolves in, “Hey man what the hell was that? What’s wrong with you?” or a variation of that. But in this movie David takes a step back, checks his nose, soaks up as much of the blood as he can on his shirt, blows the extra blood out of his nostrils, and without saying a word gets back to wrestling. That is the fighter. That is the grappler. My gym is full of stories of that—I once watched a coach set his own broken finger on the mat. I myself have stories where I was training and I felt a snap, like a twig breaking, in my finger. “Coach, I think I broke something in my pinky…where is the tape?” Then taped my two fingers together with electrical tape and went back to wrestling. I forever have a crooked pinky from now on though. One match I was in, training at the gym, and my opponent spiked me on my shoulder and there was a pop, nothing too terrible at the time, and I told my opponent, “Something happened to my shoulder, I’ll finish this match then I have to go figure out what happened.” When the round was over, my coach felt my shoulder and determined I separated the AC Joint in my shoulder. I was out for about a month with that. Just had to get the pain to get to a place where I could train again, it didn’t have to be fully gone. Just gone enough that I could lift my arm without wincing. So to see that in this movie was great. It was real. The scene where they find out because of an angry and depressed eating binge Mark went on that he is 12 lbs. over weight—so David asks the committee at the Olympic trials how long Mark has to lose the weight…they say 90min—and so they get to work. To lose 12 lbs. in 90mins to make weight. The plastic bags, the sweatshirts, the stationary bike. I’ve seen it happen. I know guys that weigh 180lbs two weeks before a fight cut down to 155lbs by weigh-ins. I saw a guy lose 8 lbs. in less than an hour. I know those fighters. That makeup. Movies don’t show that aspect of the fight. That characteristic that is found only in this world of wrestling and grappling. That can’t be faked. John Du Pont doesn’t have that in him. And the wrestlers know that. They see it. Maybe Du Pont saw that too, he saw David not falling for it. He saw David seeing him fake it. Is that what could have led to the murder? David saw John for who he was, saw how he crumbled his brother. He saw the fox in the vineyard.
There is a certain amount of almost dramatic irony in the fact that the ranch and team were called Foxcatcher. It was very fitting. This isn’t anything I can credit to the movie though, since it is a true story and that is the name of the real farm in Pennsylvania. But it just fits so well. The Bible tells us to beware of the foxes that destroy the vineyards while they are trying to bloom. Even Jesus, not prone to insults normally, lets one fly when talking about King Herod “Tell that fox Herod…” So there is this something about foxes and a feeling of dread associated with them.
The film starts off with grainy 16mm footage, which I assume to be real archived family movies, of the horses on the ranch and the fox hunts. And right before the movie starts up, the last grainy shot we see is of a fox being released onto the ranch to be hunted and it runs off into the field. The foxes need to be caught because they can and will destroy things before they have had time to bloom and mature fully. And they are clever about it.
There is this way Du Pont stands in the gym when the wrestlers are training and the way he looks at them that mirrors the way his mom looks at the horses she owns. These people are no more than horses when you have that much money. And something in that look seems like a fox surveying a vineyard for the right time to strike and how to get that crop while it is still vulnerable. Mark it seemed, in the movie, was too involved, too derailed to see it. David wasn’t. He was calm and soft and loving. There is a line that Jesus speaks where he tells us to be clever as the serpent but to remain as innocent as doves—I can’t say anything about David’s beliefs, so I don’t want to put anything in his demeanor that isn’t there, but just from observations about the way he was portrayed and from what I’ve read, it seems that he walked this line. He seemed gentle and soft and brimming with love. But when a fox realizes the serpent has seen him in the vineyard, or the dove with the clever eyes of the serpent, wouldn’t it be best to kill that serpent so that the vineyard is free for the taking? The grapes fit for plucking?
Of course there are more factors I am sure; drugs, money, and mental instabilities that can’t be overlooked. And I admit that sometimes since I hold those Scriptures about foxes and doves so close to me that maybe I see them in places they aren’t, but I try to live through those eyes—it gets bleak sometimes when you manage to see through the eyes of a serpent. There is a melancholy that hits you when nothing seems real or innocent and you see the angles and the strings. To then try and remain a dove or as close to one as you can isn’t easy at all. Because you see yourself through those serpent eyes too. You see your humility and kindness is more forced than you’d like. And you have doubts and lies you tell yourself that are so clear to you and you are struggling because if this viewpoint makes you so vulnerable to melancholy, why would Jesus ask us of it? He brings peace that can’t be explained and love that overflows our cups. So why.
But maybe that is it. Maybe I am on the right path but just not there yet? Maybe we read about the foxes and we’re all looking for the John Du Pont that is outside of us, a person or object that comes into our lives as an external factor. But what if, also, the vineyard is inside of us and parts of us are foxes too. What if Jesus is telling us to send our own serpent into the vineyards of our own souls and send them to devour the foxes nested in there that we set lose in our own vineyards. But we have to do it while staying focused on the dove that will guide us through the fox hunt. Maybe David cleared the foxes out of himself and so he could recognize the existing foxes on the outside, maybe Mark had too many foxes in his vineyard that the ones on the outside could fool him so eas…
…or maybe I am just starting to ramble. Maybe none of these things were in the movie. Maybe I have fallen off topic—what was I saying? Yes, Foxcatcher. I thought it was a real good movie. Incredible acting. A movie that catches the fighter’s and wrestler’s makeup so well. A movie that might be too real and dark for some. But it’s quiet and the acting is unmatched as well as the subtleties of it. I waited most of the year to see it and was able to track it down in one of only three theaters I could find in all of New York that seemed to be playing it.
It was worth it.
Well worth it.