Reviewed by Royce Grubic
Grappling with the One Percenters: Foxcatcher, The Jinx, and Kingsman
Four years have passed since Wall Street was so memorably “occupied.” It’s just filled with tailored suits now. The sidewalks and parks have been cleared of all the junior rabble rousers, hipsters, and television cameras. President Obama handed out governmental golden parachutes to the one percenters who were caught violating the public trust, just as Bush(es) and Clinton did before him, while the other heads of brokerage houses and banks went back to their old parasitic tricks, as they always do. Ho-hum, new smart phones come out, life goes on. Business as usual. Karl Marx, did you get my text message?
While the protests didn’t do much to uproot our nation’s intractable plutocracy or unite the workers of the world (still mostly content to divert themselves through the opiates of sports fanaticism, car worship, and general consumerism), there are cultural traces of the movement to be seen in recent films. Even major Hollywood productions have shown hints of acrimony toward the ultra-wealthy, which is ironic considering that the typical summer blockbuster has a budget approaching the GNP of a small country. Dark Knight Rises (2012), for instance, which raised such issues regarding the social value and character of one percenter Bruce Wayne and features the rhetoric of revolutionary upheaval at least, cost some $250 million to make. The unbelievably awful Avengers sequel of this year (with a price tag of $280 million) suggests that Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, might just have too much money for his own or the world’s good. But given those dollar signs being thrown around, it’s hard to see either picture as anti-establishment. Dark Knight Rises grossed over $1 billion worldwide, an amount already exceeded by by Avengers: Age of Ultron. Both are born from the beast and feed the beast.
Last winter’s Foxcatcher, more of an Indie picture with a “modest” $24 million budget, comes somewhat closer to biting that hand. The film focuses on the rather sad and homoerotic wrestling fixation of John E. DuPont, the scion of one of the most affluent families in the country—yes, those DuPonts, of the DuPont chemical corporation. It is an isolated existence for the upper crust. During my teenage years in the 1980s I lived probably less than five miles from the DuPont family compound depicted in the film, yet I personally had no idea it was there. It’s not like we’d bump into the DuPonts at the record shop or the arcade. True one percenters, kept far behind the gates, are rarely seen in semi-public except at charity galas, and they pay a tidy sum to maintain that separation. But there is a deeper cost. As a child, creepy awkward little John had no friends aside from the chauffeur’s son, paid for the chore by DuPont’s mother; as a fifty-something year old adult he similarly has only salaried sycophants and puppets ready to mouth whatever words DuPont wants to hear. His family’s affluence reeks of coldness, distance, and a hopeless degree of loneliness. The emotional and physical restraint of DuPont and his mother is fraught with tension, seemingly always about to snap. Instead they both grow old. But John acts out with others: he slaps a clipboard, a face, and not long after calmly fires deadly gunshots.
The idle rich plus idle hands make for many more tools and much more time in the devil’s workshop. Given his wealth, DuPont is able to collect Olympic wrestlers like Mark and Dave Schultz basically as pets on the grounds of the vast estate, and assemble “Team Foxcatcher” with himself as figurehead coach. He gets to wear the onesies and press flesh with the men, although the sexuality of the latter is never shown to be consummated in the film. Nonetheless, it is a low hobby, as his aged mother makes clear, and DuPont never gets the approval he seeks from his mother or true admiration from the wrestlers. They don’t laugh at him, but it’s painfully obvious that he is seen as a clownish dilettante, merely the check-signer and not the mentor he imagines himself to be. The team might call him “coach” or even “eagle” as per request, but it rings hollow except for the sound of cash registers going ka-ching. Money can buy armies but it can’t buy respect.
Foxcatcher is difficult watching. Somehow Steve Carell was nominated for an academy award for his stiff performance. He wears a prosthetic schnozz on top of his already formidable proboscis and tilts his head back as if that is what bluebloods do. Channing Tatum and an increasingly hulkish Mark Ruffalo as the Schultzes successfully capture meathead body language if nothing else. I would call it intentionally simian, and despite the brothers’ bond of athletics there is an iciness and unstated hostility in their relationship that is parallel to the DuPonts’. The film captures this well. Mark Schultz just won’t talk about it, basically, whatever it is (and of course now he makes his career as a motivational speaker). He is all knots that he won’t dare untie for fear of what might be set free. He and his brother both follow the money to the DuPont compound, but only one survives.
The resemblance of the real life John E. DuPont to Robert Durst, the subject of HBO’s recent documentary series The Jinx, is striking both in terms of appearance and circumstance. Durst, also a prisoner of family wealth, is slight, twitchy, a stoner (while DuPont prefers cocaine), spoiled and socially awkward. Durst is creepy like DuPont but much more evil and oddly charismatic. There is darkness in his eyes that is hard to turn away from. The son of a billionaire Manhattan real estate mogul, Durst trumps DuPont’s murder with three (allegedly) of his own. The first, of his wife Kathie in 1982, remains an open case, as the body has never been found. For the second, a bizarre case where Durst had rented an apartment in Texas disguised as a mute woman, he was acquitted despite admitting to killing and dismembering his neighbor Morris Black in 2001. The body was cut up into pieces, thrown into garbage bags and tossed into Galveston Bay, where it was soon discovered. Durst’s high-powered attorneys were able to convince the jury that the crime was self-defense and the dismemberment a result of an understandable panic. The third killing was of his close friend Susan Berman, who was apparently blackmailing Durst and about to spill the beans to authorities about Kathie. The documentary concluded dramatically this past March, following incriminating handwriting analysis and the climactic moment where Durst, yammering to himself and believing he was off-mike, confesses “of course I killed them all.” Judging from what was on screen, the documentary in fact solved the case, in one of the more remarkable instances of activistic journalism in recent years. Almost immediately after the final episode aired, Durst was arrested in New Orleans, extradited to California and charged with first degree murder. As monstrous as his actions were, the dawdling Durst is sympathetic in the series as he tries to juggle all his various lies. Perhaps that is because of the role of filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who is prominent through the later parts of the documentary and comes across as even more of an annoying, self-absorbed douche than Michael Moore.
Ah, the filthy guilty rich, with murder as a metaphor for their blasé exploitation of the common man, all to protect their pampered lives of privilege and sin. For vicarious killing of these plutocratic SOBs (and to witness at least one literally take it up the wazoo), see Kingsman: The Secret Service. At times it is screamingly hilarious and truly good fun, although it is hard to believe Michael Caine, with his accent, as an elitist aristocrat. Somehow that casting is more implausible than any of the stunts or the many cans of whoop-ass opened by Colin Firth, of all people. The wink-wink James Bond references are dopey, and Samuel L. Jackson adds a tilted baseball hat and silly lisp to his usual yelling. But to see an action movie (budget: $81 million) take such a direct stand against the snobbery and heartless excesses of the world’s one percenters is a memorable film experience indeed.
—RPG, May 28, 2105