How Insane Was the Real-Life Millionaire Murderer at the Center of ‘Foxcatcher’?

In Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (out this Friday), Steve Carell turns in a haunted and harrowing performance as John E. du Pont, the millionaire heir to the du Pont fortune and amateur wrestling enthusiast who murdered Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz in 1996. The film is riveting and strange, made all the more fascinating by its “based on a true story” framework. But I’ll confess to a bit of skepticism while watching the film — not about whether it departs from the facts (a line of inquiry that’s beginning to rear its ugly head, predictably enough), but whether gun-toting, coke-snorting, paranoid mama’s boy du Pont was actually that unbalanced or, y’know, dramatic license. But research from the period indicates that, if anything, Miller and his screenwriters went soft on du Pont’s, um, eccentricities.

The story of du Pont is told through the eyes of Dave Schultz’s brother Mark, and via their interactions: the millionaire brings Mark to his Foxcatcher Farms estate in Pennsylvania, where he’s built a training center and provides housing for wrestlers, to train for the 1996 Olympic Games. The two men form a bond, an odd mixture of friendship, surrogate parent/child interactions, and unspoken sexual tension. They also do quite a bit of coke.

As portrayed in the screenplay by E. Max Frye (Something Wild) and Dan Futterman (Miller’s debut film Capote), du Pont’s primary psychological affliction is deep and unwavering self-delusion. He is, as he says, “a patriot” who wants “to see this country soar again,” and fancies himself the man who can make that happen, via not only his generous financial endowments for sports, but by promoting himself as a role model and success story (he even finances a documentary about himself). And he not only considers himself a tactical force for the wrestling team he finances, holding an in-name-only coach title and occasionally spouting nonsensical “inspirational” speeches — he proclaims himself an athlete, competing at farcical “master’s” matches where the fix is clearly in.

Steve Carell as John du Pont in "Foxcatcher"

All of that is true, and much of it is framed in Foxcatcher by the complexities of his personal relationships with the Schultz brothers. That makes dramatic sense, as does the line drawn between the fraying of those relationships and his increasingly erratic behavior as the story winds towards its terrible conclusion. There is also, it must be noted, a fair amount of evidence that the man was just plain bananas. Here are a few additional tidbits about Mr. du Pont that didn’t make it into Foxcatcher:

  • On two separate occasions, du Pont drove luxury cars into the estate’s pond, narrowly escaping before the vehicles sank.
  • He once fired a gun at the geese in said pond (nearly hitting a 12-year-old boy), either because the fish weren’t biting, or because he believed the geese “were casting spells on him.”
  • Following a lavish wedding, his only marriage was annulled less than six months later, after he allegedly held a gun to his wife’s temple and accused her of being a Russian spy.
  • After he donated millions of dollars to Villanova University (starting a wrestling program and becoming its head coach), he was accused by one of his wrestlers of making sexual advances. The wrestler sued; the case was settled out of court.
  • He removed treadmills from Foxcatcher’s training center, insisting that the clocks on them “were sending him backwards in time.”
  • Not long before the Schultz murder, he became convinced that people and/or spirits were tunneling into his home to attack him, and ordered X-rays of the house’s walls and columns.
  • Around the same time, he was accused of racism for dismissing two African-American wrestlers from Team Foxcatcher. Some said he told them that the team was affiliated with the KKK; others claimed that he was terrified of the color black, which he equated with death. (Tellingly, after his arrest, he ordered all structures on the estate spray-painted matte black.)

John du Pont, circa 1996

The Los Angeles Times notes that the final accusation prompted a conference call two months before Dave Schultz’s murder, in which the organization ultimately decided to take no formal steps to disassociate itself with frequent underwriter du Pont. “Du Pont’s most ardent defender during that conference call,” the Times reports, “was Dave Schultz.”

At risk of “fact-checking” the movie, one item that does jump out is the 1988 death of du Pont’s mother, which prompted a renewed interest in wrestling and the build-up of Foxcatcher’s facility. However, she is still very much alive in the mid-‘90s frame of Foxcatcher, played with maximum disapproval by a marvelous Vanessa Redgrave, who fixes him with withering glares and can barely speak of the “low” sport to which he’s tied their family name (they hunt foxes and race horses).

The strained relationship with his mother is floated as one of the possible keys to du Pont’s tenuous grasp on reality, so the fudging of the timeline is understandable. But if additional reading on this man makes one thing clear, it’s that motivations and psychology can only go so far. We want to understand what makes a murderer like du Pont tick, what makes a respectable man snap. But some men are simply mad, and you can only wonder why it took so long for anyone to notice.

Foxcatcher opens Friday.