Annapurna Pictures is undoubtedly one of America’s most exciting production companies currently in business. Since its founding in 2011 by Megan Ellison (still only 29), the company has co-financed Paul Thomas Anderson’s mesmerisingly abstract The Master, Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial berserker Zero Dark Thirty, and Spike Jonze’s Her, the greatest movie of the decade so far. The rest of its productions – particularly Killing Them Softly, Spring Breakers and American Hustle – are good, if not great movies, and its upcoming release slate includes anticipated projects from David O. Russell and Richard Linklater. 2014’s Foxcatcher resides nicely amongst such esteemed company, and while falling into the ‘good, not great’ column, it serves to prove that Annapurna is crafting its own steadily unfurling golden age at the commercial pinnacle of American independent cinema.
The events leading up to the murder of Olympic gold-medallist David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) are covered in the movie, but the motives are not the focal point. It begins in 1986, when the deliriously rich John du Pont (Steve Carrell) decides to become a wrestling coach, and to turn his vast estate – Foxcatcher Farm – into the headquarters for American wrestling. He starts by hiring David’s younger and less popular brother Mark (Channing Tatum), who becomes devoted to du Pont and allows himself to essentially be turned into his pet; at one point, he is even ordered to “stay“. But believing he has a chance to emerge from his brother’s shadow, Mark blindly allows du Pont to steer him from the beaten track, until one day he is shunned in favour of David. By then, Mark is an out-of-shape cocaine addict who suffers from depression, and the world championships are slithering farther from his grasp.
With the inept and disturbed du Pont at the centre of the movie’s narrative, Foxcatcher digs deep into the decadence of excess. It is set at the height of Reagan-era America, but its world is a bleak, empty wasteland. Wide-open spaces alienate the characters, who are rarely captured in anything closer than a long-shot, and the majority of the film eschews musical soundtrack in favour of awkward, sinister quietness. Encapsulating and enhancing this atmosphere, Carrell’s frozen expression and incoherent prattling make du Pont creepy in a sickly and uncomfortable way. He is a burnout of the 1980s, a ghostly man who stews in his enormous mansion while muttering garbled patriotism and promoting individualism. And he ruins a lot of lives in the process.
Foxcatcher uses the story of Schultz to illustrate the American upper classes as inherently sociopathic, and draws upon several reference points in doing so. For example (just one, in favour of brevity), Mark is ordered upon arrival to his reasonably sized bungalow that “the big house” is off-limits, and that he should never speak to du Pont’s mother, recalling the segregation of white businessmen and their slaves during the antebellum era, anchored by the fact that Mark is merely an asset that du Pont has just acquired. Aspects such as this criticise the never-changing self-importance of the stinkin’ rich, as to du Pont, wrestling seems to be yet another hobby taken up by an eccentric, wealthy inheritor with too much time to spare, alongside his ornithology, collection of stamps, study of mollusc shells, coke abuse and near-constant whiskey sipping. But when Foxcatcher lands, it’s all about those gunshots; having emphasised the physicality of its characters’ bodies throughout, it concludes by kissing off against ridiculous wealth in favour of the human form.