On the Themes of Director Bennett Miller and ‘Foxcatcher’

Single-minded to the point of obsession, with documentary dedication to real-life stories and themes about the corrupting influence of money, director Bennett Miller uses his films as a prism to look at the world.

To assess the tragic drama “Foxcatcher,” I wanted to get a better sense of Miller himself. So I watched his previous, one-word-titled films “Capote” and “Moneyball.” I came away enriched. Miller focuses on how money corrupts with a singularity of purpose to the point of obsession and a documentarian’s notion of a how story should be told.

“Foxcatcher” tells the terrifying true tale of the events that led to the death of American Olympic wrestler David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). Although Schultz is really only a supporting player as the story plays out, his death and the eerie signals of tragedy float over every aspect of the film. Much of what we see centers on Schultz’s brother, and fellow Olympic Gold Medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who fell under the spell of his brother’s murderer John Du Pont (Steve Carell) just as he was training for the Olympic games in 1988.

Starring Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum

Starring Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum

The relationship between Du Pont and Mark is not unlike that of Truman Capote and the killer Perry Jones in “Capote.” Capote takes advantage of Perry’s lack of intelligence to get what he wants, but his obsession with what he wants ends up consuming him. The same goes for Du Pont as he sees Mark as a pathway to being considered a great leader of men, the coach of the next great Olympian. Capote, of course, doesn’t become the villain in the way Du Pont eventually does, but their single-mindedness is similar as is their quirkiness and the outsider qualities with which both men wrestled their entire lives.

Billy Beane, too, had outsider qualities that likely appealed to Miller. Beane was a standout ballplayer in high school who was seen as a “can’t miss” prospect. And then he missed. Beane then found his niche as a talent scout. With a single-minded purpose and the use of Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand, Beane began a quest for greatness with his often tactless reflex of powers. Beane is portrayed as a mercenary negotiator who stayed clear of his players so he could continue to remain a mercenary when deciding their fate.

Starring Brad Pitt

Starring Brad Pitt

All three stories share single-minded determination and purpose that leads to either grand tragedy or grand triumph — or, in the case of “Capote,” a mixture of both in equal measure. The style of all the stories is reminiscent of a documentary, because the most compelling scenes often depict two people in a room in a sort of talking head conversation that recounts the details of their lives in illuminating fashion. The tactic is most obvious in “Capote,” in which the legendary writer is essentially a documentarian with words instead of a camera.

Some of the best scenes in “Moneyball” are between Pitt and Hill reviewing their philosophies, with Pitt’s Billy Beane coaxing Hill’s Brand into revealing the cold-hearted numbers behind his baseball philosophy. Numerous scenes throughout “Moneyball” play out with people in chairs being interviewed about their intentions. Beane talks to the management team of the Cleveland Indians, trying to make a trade and being grilled about his unusual approach to choosing players. Then Billy interviews Peter Brand about what would come to be called “Moneyball.” This approach continues until the film ends with Beane in an interview for the Boston Red Sox general manager position.

In “Foxcatcher,” the relationship between Mark Schultz and John Du Pont essentially begins with an interview. Du Pont requests that Mark come to his home in Pennsylvania for a conversation. They end up in Du Pont’s trophy room, where Du Pont asks Mark about his family, his workouts and his goals. It’s a revealing scene for both characters, but we get our best sense of Mark as someone who is easily impressed, a quality that is his eventual undoing as Du Pont proves to be spectacularly unimpressive aside from his incredible wealth.

The corruption of money plays a key role in a devastating scene in “Capote.” The most compelling scene depicts Clifton Collins Jr. as the infamous killer Perry Smith, who reveals that he and his partner killed the Clutter family because the criminals believed the family home had $10,000 inside. In the end, Smith and his partner walked away with $40. The senselessness of the cold-hearted slaying is heart-wrenching.

Capote

Money is in the very title of “Moneyball,” which includes incisive commentary on how finances have corrupted Major League baseball. For a time it seemed that buying players was enough to purchase glorious championships — the purity of simply playing the game and winning was being overshadowed by contracts and press releases. “Moneyball” is ironically shown as an impure way of choosing ballplayers, but it actually celebrates playing the game in the most fundamental way. “Moneyball” undermines the big-money teams by simply beating them in an actual game, and not in a boardroom with a contract.

Finally, in “Foxcatcher,” money is the poison that flows through the life of John Du Pont. Money isolated him from reality and live a life in fantasy. The disconnect between Du Pont’s fantasy and reality was his madness, which everything to do with buying power. Money, too, was David Schultz’s downfall. Although Schultz surely was not a greedy man his desire for a comfortable, steady job working for Du Pont caused him to overlook a number of warning signs about the millionaire eccentric. These red flags sent even his less-than-astute brother Mark fleeing the Foxcatcher estate.

Single-minded purpose has driven greatness and tragedy since the beginning of time. Money came along later to provide further incentive and invite madness. Miller captures this reality in pseudo-documentary form. He shows his viewers that single-mindedness and money can combine for greatness, for tragedy or both.

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