Based on true events, Foxcatcher will engage you from the get-go. Powerfully moving and cinematographically beautiful, it is an American morality tale of fallen glory, incorporating muddled notions of patriotism and the tarnished ethics of sportsmanship.

John du Pont (Steve Carell) is scion of one of the wealthiest family in America, a deeply sad individual, who has been isolated by his wealth and pampered status all his life. Emotionally stunted and unable to relate to people with much more than a cold aloofness, he craves the clubbability that his supreme indulgence, his wrestling team, Team Foxcatcher, affords him.

He plays vainly at being a wrestling coach and is a somewhat senior (in age only) wrestler himself who funds wrestling events, within which he is allowed to win the odd pathetic trophy. He is proud of the book he wrote on birds and equally proud of his stamp collecting, or "philately" as he madly repeats in a scene in this decidedly sinister and masterful movie.

Du Pont is interested in guns also, and one of the most bizarre scenes in a film that tops bizarre with extra-bizarre is the arrival of a tank at the du Pont mansion. The purchase has been ordered from a US Army base, but the all-important gun is missing. The spoiled playboy can only storm away from the faulty transaction in utter rage and the scene exemplifies the film's constant juxtaposition of the frightening with the helplessly pathetic.

We first meet du Pont as he persuades Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to be his star wrestler. Schultz won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, but is living in relative squalor, an American hero who had his brief moment of fame. The young wrestler has never really known his father and is encouraged by du Pont's faith in him and amenable to his mumbo jumbo about restoring the patriotic ideal to a flaccid USA.

Du Pont invites him to live in a well-appointed chalet in the grounds of the house. No expense is spared as he grooms him for the imminent World Championships in Clermont-Ferrand. Looming closer, too, is the ultimate prize, the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Meanwhile, du Pont's cold, unfeeling mother (Vanessa Redgrave) shares the huge Pennsylvania pile with her son. She is obsessed with her horses. He can't stand the horses; she regards wrestling as a low sport. The rift is profound.

All three leads are exceptional. Tatum is brilliant as the vulnerable, volcanically pent-up and inarticulate young champion wrestler. Mark Ruffalo plays the older, protective brother David, all solicitude and tenderness. 

Steve Carell gives perhaps the performance of his life as du Pont, playing it with a kind of catatonic imperiousness; cold, lifeless eyes and an evil, demented grin. Rather than spoil anything, let's just say the story doesn't end well.

Director Bennett Miller won the Best Director award at Cannes last year with Foxcatcher and for many it will be film of the year. Opens nationwide.

Paddy Kehoe