Let's start with a plea.
You may already know the story of the Schultz brothers, Dave and Mark, both gold-medal Olympic wrestlers, and their stormy relationship with their wrestling-obsessed benefactor, John DuPont. If you don't, it's only a click away on Wikipedia. But — here's that plea — do not click! Sit on your hands. And watch Bennett Miller's brooding, gloomy yet altogether riveting "Foxcatcher" without foreknowledge of the shocking end.
There's another shock we can freely discuss, though, and that's the physical transformation of Steve Carell, doing some of his best career work here as the disturbingly eccentric DuPont, bearing a nose that renders him almost unrecognizable (though eerily similar to the real DuPont.) Yet even more than his face, it's Carell's voice — high, tinny, and frighteningly odd — that lingers in our heads after the credits roll.
Though ultimately a three-person tragedy, "Foxcatcher" begins as the story of one: Mark Schultz, the younger, brawnier brother, thoroughly embodied by Channing Tatum in a thrillingly physical performance. A couple years after his 1984 gold medal in Los Angeles, Mark is down on his luck, eating instant Ramen noodles at night and living on $20 gigs showing his medal to schoolkids.
Suddenly a call comes from Foxcatcher Farm, the sprawling Pennsylvania estate where DuPont, heir to the storied gunpowder (and later, chemical) fortune, lives with his elderly mother (the formidable Vanessa Redgrave, making the most of a few lines and some supremely icy looks). Mark is whisked by helicopter into a lifestyle he can't refuse: being coached and owned, essentially, by DuPont.
Their first meeting, in a luxurious paneled library, is beautifully captured by Miller and screenwriters Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye: A painfully uncomfortable, inarticulate Schultz listens as DuPont utters staccato bursts of mumbo jumbo. "I'm a wrestling coach." ''I'm an ornithologist." ''I'm a patriot." To Mark, it means one thing: A place to live and train. DuPont also wants the older Schultz, but the sunnier, more stable Dave (a vital and appealing Mark Ruffalo) is settled with a wife and two kids, and has no intention of moving. "You can't buy Dave," Mark explains.
At first, things go well. Mark leads a hand-picked team at Foxcatcher, with dreams of Olympic glory in Seoul in 1988. He accompanies DuPont to lavish events and speaks of him as a father.
But DuPont proves highly erratic, veering from gestures of generosity to fits of venom. He shoots bullets into the ceiling of the wrestling gym. He purchases a military tank complete with machine gun. He plies Mark with cocaine, and lures him to private wrestling bouts, just the two of them, in the middle of the night.
As Mark flounders, Dave agrees to come on board; even the solid brother, it appears, can be had for a price. Mark seethes with jealousy, but needs his brother badly. Dejected and overweight at Olympic trials, he destroys his hotel room in a tantrum, then almost destroys his body in a massive binge on room-service food. Only Dave can get him back on track.
Miller, who illustrated the highs and lows of baseball so well in "Moneyball," is equally adept at portraying the peculiarities of wrestling here, and how those physical moves — beautifully choreographed and executed — sync with deeper psychological currents.
If you know from news accounts how things went for the Schultzes at Seoul and beyond — how terribly low it all sank — then you'll be prepared for the stunning climax here. If you don't, so much the better. A meditation on the corruptive force of money, a glimpse at the intoxication of sports, and just a really twisted real-life yarn, "Foxcatcher" ends in a snowy Pennsylvania winter. But the chill sets in a whole lot sooner than that.
"Foxcatcher," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some drug use and a scene of violence." Running time: 134 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.