Foxcatcher: Power Abuse and Unhealthy Bonds

Abusive relationships are no laughing matter and can be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health, but not often do the conversations about abuse stray far from significant others or family members. One such relationship that gets widely less coverage is that of an athlete and their coaches/management. In the movie “Foxcatcher” we see an extremely unhealthy relationship between Mark Schultz (wrestler) and John Du Pont (benefactor) unfold. Mark uses his role of a philanthropist to wedge his way into his players lives and essentially claim ownership of them. In my paper I will discuss the conflict perspective of the movie and the events that the movie is based upon.

“Foxcatcher” opens on a young man, who we will find out is the wrestler Mark Schultz, speaking to an auditorium of children. He is paid $20 for this speech after being mistaken by the woman at the front desk for his more well-known brother Dave Schultz. We can tell right off the bat that Mark’s character is hurting for money and that he remains in his brother’s shadow despite, as he claimed, being a gold medal Olympian as well. Mark receives a call to travel to the Du Pont estate and there he receives an offer to train at John E Du Pont’s personal wrestling facility. He is offered a salary, a home, and most importantly… recognition. John E. Du Pont is a member of the Du Pont family and thus he has an innumerable amount of resources at his disposal. Described in the movie as “the richest family in America”, it is safe to say that John has suspiciously little to gain by sponsoring Mark, as well as several other wrestlers. But we soon find out that his motivations are a mix of delusions and a lust for power over others. In the scene where Mark and John first meet it is clear to see that John is an uncomfortable person. The way he presents himself is that of someone who is almost altruistically presenting the less fortunate with his presence. He doesn’t belittle Mark but it’s clear that he sees him as more of a prize than a human being. When Mark expresses his worries of not winning, John reassures him by saying “You’ll win, don’t worry”. His tone and facial expression is cold and void of emotion. He does not see Mark, the human. He only sees Mark, the prize winner. This is further expressed when Mark wins the world championship.

In a drunken state, John takes the medals and places them in his personal trophy cabinet. John sees these medals as a product of his own work and not that of Mark. It is after this moment that John’s antics feel less and less zany, and more callous instead. Mark begins to see John as someone who truly understands him after listening to stories of John’s past. He (Mark) feels that John is someone that he can relate to and starts to form a deeper connection with John by spending a significant time together and even attending a large event to introduce John as someone that he feels has “become like a father figure” to him. This part of his introduction however, is written by John himself and takes an entirely new meaning with Mark being high on cocaine for the first time in his life. John feeds off the power that he holds over Mark and this can be seen throughout the movie, especially when he (John) gets Mark addicted to cocaine and becomes his primary source of drugs. When Mark decides to have himself and the other wrestlers take a day off of training, John is seen with a cold fury. He confronts Mark, verbally assaults him, smacks him in the face, and then runs off while yelling that he was going to bring Mark’s brother Dave to his facility. Mark is devastated by this. He sees his “father figure” and closest friend essentially choose his brother in a turn of events that Mark has likely seen before with the media attention focusing on Dave rather than himself. In the journal article The Decision to Leave an Abusive Relationship: Economic Dependence and Psychological Commitment, it talks about the reluctance some people go through to disconnect themselves from an abusive relationship by stating that women are less likely to leave their abusive partners when they rely on them (their partners) for economic support as well as emotional support (Strube, M., Barber S., n.d.).

Mark displays both an economic dependence, living on John’s property and collecting checks for wrestling. As well as a psychological commitment, by viewing John as a father figure and as his closest friend. It is because of this that Mark stays on the farm, but it is clear that Mark is furious about it. He displays typical behavior of an abuse victim and begins to act coldly to John, eventually requiring a meeting between him and his brother and John and his lawyer to take place. John is greatly upset by Mark’s reluctance to have him in his corner for the Olympic games because he wants to be seen as the great coach to give Mark the guidance he needed to win gold. The lawyer eventually cuts a deal with the two that allows John to coach in Mark’s corner as well as giving Dave the amount of money he asks for. John’s lust for adoration continues when he funds a documentary to be made about Foxcatcher Farms, the facility which he created. In this documentary he instructs the film maker to interview Dave about how he (John) was able to mentor Dave into the coach he is today. John doesn’t just want affection and gratitude from his wrestlers, he wants everyone to see him how he sees himself. When Mark loses in the Olympics, John snaps.

His documentary is ruined. His legacy is marred by Marks’s loss and he feels that Dave is to blame. Up to this point in the movie, John sees Dave taking the role that he envies so much. Dave is coaching Mark better than he ever could and he views this as his property being taken away from him. His future being taken away from him. He starts an aggressive campaign to get back in Mark’s good graces by encouraging him during his workouts and attempting to reconnect with him before the Olympic match takes place. Mark is very obviously furious at John and refuses to talk to him. Dave sees the tension happening and ushers John away, seeing John’s involvement as something that would ultimately negatively affect Mark’s performance. Mark’s Olympic loss caps off this accumulation of events and leads to John driving to Dave’s house on a snowy day and shooting him until he’s dead. The audience is shown John attempting to escape from the police but is eventually surrounded and taken into custody. Text appears showing that the events in the movie were based off of a real-life story, a short scene showing Mark as a cage fighter plays, and then the credits roll.

The movie “Foxcatcher” wonderfully establishes an extremely off-putting and wildly melancholy tone from beginning to end through a distinct lack of music or editing. Instead of the typical Hollywood style, the director Bennett Miller chose a very cut and dry approach to his movie. He excels on creating a tense environment that feels very real and nonchalant. This is largely due to the events being based off of a very true story that happened on the real Foxcatcher Farms, and while the movie does a terrific job of telling the story, it doesn’t nearly tell how pervasive these issues are.

In Hardin’s article about hegemony in sport he discusses how, “Focus on competition excludes the activities of people who have neither the resources, the organization, nor the desire to make their activities competitive” (Hardin, M., Hardin B., 2005). This in large part describes the Olympic hopefuls and their pursuits to be world champions. They have the desire to be competitive but find it very hard to be supported in their efforts to make it to the big stage. In Mark Schultz’s book “Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John Du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold” he states, “Ours (story) had all the makings of a rag-to-riches tale, we fought our way through life and the world of wrestling to win a combined four National Collegiate Athletic Association championships, two Olympic gold medals, and three World Championship titles. But riches never came” (Schultz, 2014 p. 8). Mark and his brother excelled at the sport, but because of the nature of the Olympics, they were never really financially supported throughout their careers until John Du Pont came into the picture.

Mark and Dave grew up in a broken family with very little money and as a result had to move around quite often, so when a man came to gift them with amounts of money that they had never seen before all while doing what they loved, they couldn’t resist. It was the power of money and prestige that put John Du Pont in the position that allowed him to take advantage of the desperate and less fortunate. John could take from the Schultz’s what he wished because they felt so indebted to him for supporting them. While the events in the movie are far from a perfect depiction of what actually transpired on Foxcatcher Farms, it is still a great set-piece to showcase one of the darkest corners of the professional sports world.