A closer look at… Foxcatcher

Note: Guides from our archive are in a slightly different format and have been edited here to make them more user-friendly.

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Foxcatcher is rated 15 for drug use, brief strong violence. The film is available on DVD.

The Scoop

The glory of winning an Olympic gold medal has had little bearing on the everyday life of wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). He lives alone, surviving on pot noodles and video games, earning a pittance giving motivational talks to disinterested schoolchildren. The only meaning in his life seems to come from training, which he does under the supervision of his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), an affable family man whose own sporting achievements overshadow Mark’s.

Then from out of the blue, Mark is contacted by billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell).  The philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast has built an expensive private training facility on his estate at Foxcatcher Farms, and wants the Schultz brothers to come and train there for the World championship. Dave doesn’t want to uproot his family, but Mark has nothing to lose, and is soon living at Foxcatcher under the wing of the seemingly benevolent du Pont.

The relationship between the two lonely men grows increasingly strange, as Mark yearns for the father figure he never had, and du Pont tries to impress his distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave).  When Dave finally agrees to come to Foxcatcher, the ensuing power struggle will lead to tragedy.

Dig Deeper

  • What was your initial response to the film, and why? How much did you know about the real story going in, and how did this affect your viewing experience?
  • How did the screenwriters go about shaping historical facts of the Schultz’s story into film narrative? What might be some of the main considerations for writers when approaching this kind of task? What do you make of the idea of ‘fiction as a means towards truth’?
  • What did you make of the film’s cast? Why do you think that Steve Carrell was cast as John du Pont? To what extent does our knowledge of an actor’s persona affect our reaction to the characters they play? What qualities do Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo bring to the roles of the Schultz brothers?
  • How do the filmmakers introduce us to Mark’s emotional and mental state at the beginning of the film? How did you feel about these scenes, and how did you react to Mark as a character? What do you think he really needs, and why does he think that du Pont can provide the answer for him?

‘I’m your brother and I love you. I’m not going to let you go down like this.’  – Dave Schultz

  • How did you feel about the relationship between the brothers? What is positive about this relationship, and which aspects seem unhealthy? How have both brothers been shaped by their childhood experiences?

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  • How did you feel about John du Pont, and which aspects of the character made you most uneasy? How does he manage to gain emotional and psychological power over Mark, and why is he unable to similarly manipulate Dave?

‘I am giving America hope.’ – John du Pont

  • Are there any cultural or historical factors at work in the Schultz/du Pont tragedy, and to what extent is this a uniquely American story? What does patriotism mean for Mark and for John du Pont, and why is it so important to them? What implicit critique of patriotism, or of American culture, might the film be offering?

‘We as a nation have failed to honour you, and that is a problem.’ – John du Pont

  • Do you agree that America has ‘failed to honour’ Mark’s achievements as a wrestler? Were you surprised by the financial circumstances of an Olympic champion? Does society owe anything to those – such as athletes, artists, or service-people – who achieve things for their country at the cost of their own financial security, and who risk being forgotten later in life?

FOXCATCHER

‘I’m a little concerned that there are some psychological issues we need to take care of.’ – John du Pont

  • What clues are we given as to the ‘psychological issues’ which ultimately motivate du Pont to commit murder? What is the significance of his relationship with his mother? How has his perception of the world, and of himself, been warped by his extreme wealth and privilege?

    ‘I don’t see him as a monster. He’s someone who was suffering from mental illness and did something terrible. He was a very sad, damaged human being.’ – Actor Steve Carrell

  • To what extent, if at all, does the film encourage us to feel sorry for John du Pont? Is it significant that the film does not explicitly mention the mental illness with which du Pont was diagnosed during his trial?  What principles should guide our thinking when addressing questions of mental illness and moral culpability?

‘A coach is a father, a coach is a mentor, a coach has great power.’ – John du Pont

  • What moral responsibility do sports coaches, and others in similar positions of influence, have for their charges? What might the ‘great power’ which du Pont describes look like, and how should it be exercised? Do you think that Dave exercises this power responsibly with Mark, and why or why not?

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  • The real Mark Schultz made critical comments about the finished film, claiming that it twisted the truth. What moral responsibility do filmmakers have when making films about real people – especially living people? Does a film ‘based on a true story’ need to be faithful to the real events in order to be responsible, or to be truthful? What impact, if any, does Schultz’s reaction have on your view of Foxcatcher?

‘There was something about the story – or perhaps something beneath the story – that wasn’t strange at all. In fact, the opposite.’ – Director Bennett Miller

  • What do you think the director means by this statement, and do you agree with him? In what sense might the darkness on display in Foxcatcher – loneliness, emotional damage, mental illness, violence – be an ‘ordinary’ part of the human condition?

‘We caught the fox, didn’t we? This is the fox.’ – John du Pont

  • What is each of the characters ultimately chasing after, and why does this pursuit have tragic consequences? What emotional or spiritual needs do John du Pont and Mark Schultz try to compensate for through sporting glory, and through their relationship? Is it possible to pursue our deepest needs without destructive consequences?

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Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at www.damarismedia.com Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.

210 thoughts on “A closer look at… Foxcatcher”

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