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Two men become untethered from reality and a third pays the ultimate price in Foxcatcher, a contemplative, chilling meditation on America’s sense of owed victory by director Bennett Miller. There’s been much Oscar buzz surrounding its three stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. The irony, of course, is that the superlative work they’re doing here is in the pursuit of criticising America’s obsession with winning. Our protagonists crave a return to international dominance, at any price, with events taking place in the aftermath of the United States’ disheartening loss to the former USSR at the 1992 Olympics and coming to a head following Atlanta ’96. Amazingly, Foxcatcher is based on a true story, albeit a bizarre one; amazing because you couldn’t imagine up a more scathing critique of American culture if you tried.

A virtually unrecognizable Steve Carell plays John Du Pont in the feature, a billionaire “philanthropist, ornithologist, philatelist” with a love for the sport of wrestling that curdles and festers into a deeply, darkly unhealthy fixation. He claims his friends call him Golden Eagle, indicating just how few friends he probably has. Under his wing he takes the scowling, isolated Olympic gold-medalist Mark Schultz (a broken-down, never-better Channing Tatum), offering up the facilities of his grand Foxcatcher Farm as a training ground for the 1996 Summer Games. But resentment breeds between the two men when their surrogate father-son relationship mutates into something more sexualised and manipulative. In an act of emotional warfare, Du Pont brings Mark’s older brother David (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champ, to the farm as head coach. It’s a ruinous decision for all.

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Those familiar with Du Pont’s fall from grace – and the subsequent shaming of his once-proud family name – will know precisely where the picture is heading from the get-go, though Miller doesn’t exactly tease the uninitiated with hope for a happy ending. From the very first scenes, of Tatum’s Mark Schultz enduring his banal existence, to the final tragic frames, Foxcatcher is a stone cold bummer. It can also feel so detached from its subjects – passively observing their individual, life-wrecking choices – that it seems entirely uncaring. (As a ‘Film God’, Miller just lets his movies happen to his characters, as opposed to, say, the Coens, who actively f*** with characters, or J.J. Abrams, who bends all logic and reasoning to save them.)

However, the performances are so compelling across the board – technically proficient and yet improvisational; audacious and unnerving – we’re drawn in to care for the characters’ fates far more than the filmmaker ever is. Tatum is thrilling to watch, delivering on his long-held dramatic promise with this pressure-cooker performance. A sequence of despair in his hotel room, and its subsequent ramifications, shows Tatum at his finest. Carell (resembling, weirdly, Danny DeVito’s The Penguin) is an ingenious casting choice; embodying the strangeness of Du Pont and making his madness appear terrifyingly unknowable and somehow entirely reasonable. (His interactions with mother, a withholding Vanessa Redgrave, inform much of Du Pont’s choices, screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman argue.) While Carell draws our attention and Tatum simmers in the background, Ruffalo haunts the frame as a family man trying to do right by everyone, not realising all the ways he’s doing them wrong.

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If nothing else, Foxcatcher is an interesting counterpoint to Unbroken, another flick about an exceptional Olympian, except in that, the subject Louis Zamperini is feted for exemplifying the best of our species’ qualities. Zamperini is adored because he seems super human, thanks to his physical abilities and spiritual resilience in the most torturous of conditions. The Schultz brothers, on the other hand, are hugely imperfect. Winners, but losers. Their sponsor, Du Pont, despite his bird-like profile, is similarly all too human.

Du Pont so badly wanted his training facility to breed excellence and help return his nation to its lost glory. The tragedy isn’t the violence that eventually took place there, although it was indeed tragic. The tragedy is that the events at Foxcatcher Farm proceeding it – the gross misappropriation of the American dream; the cruelty exacted in the hunt for it – is a far better representation of what America is, and what humanity is, than Du Pont even realised.  Miller, with a defeatist perspective that will either alienate or mesmerise you, just lets it all unfold.

Foxcatcher arrives in Australian cinemas January 29, 2015.