New York director Bennett Miller’s two biggest films in Hollywood have been Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011). One focused on the writer of crime masterpiece In Cold Blood, the other, a biopic about baseball coach Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) assembling a strong team for competition. In his latest film, Foxcatcher, Miller has combined both ideas to tell the fascinating true story of the unlikely relationship between three wrestling enthusiasts.

This is a story best served cold, so if you can avoid any insight into the real life drama going into the movie, it’s well worth doing. Already nominated for five Oscar awards this season, it follows Olympic Gold Medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (an impressively serious Channing Tatum) as he pursues the podium once more at the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics.

His older and more successful brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo; Now You See Me, The Avengers) is never short of encouragement, but Mark sees the potential to go further under the nurturing wing of eccentric millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell well and truly shedding the funny-man schtick). Quietly ambitious and obviously obsessive, du Pont lures Mark to move onto his luxurious Pennsylvanian estate with the promise of extensive private training, a hand-picked team and a very real shot at the championships.

Much of the audience’s attentiveness is given to Carell’s career-defining performance as du Pont, which goes above and beyond the well-documented prosthetic nose he wears. He carries the film on his pale and weak shoulders, succeeding in giving integrity to a character that could have easily become a caricature in the hands of a less accomplished actor.

Brought-up by a pompous and distant mother who paid children to be her son’s friend (a brief but impacting appearance by veteran British stage actress Vanessa Redgrave), du Pont cuts a sad and lonely figure. He makes Mark call him ‘The Golden Eagle’ and treads the fine line between driven and dark, with Carell anchoring du Pont’s increasingly possessive nature with fleeting moments of genuine affection and admiration for his protégées.

Despite John du Pont’s murky motivations and obsession with making Mark an American sports hero, he warrants much sympathy throughout the film, even in its intensely dramatic and unexpected finale. His inability to see beyond his overarching hopes and dreams also make him a force to be reckoned with – he puts the “mentor” in “tormentor” – and it’s not until Mark is in over his head that he begins to wake up to it.

Tatum – usually known for “all brawn and no brains” performances in films like Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street – is incredibly impressive as the glory-hungry Mark. Although Tatum doesn’t say a hell of a lot, he expertly balances broody with sensitive, particularly in his alternating interactions with du Pont and his brother.

As Dave, Ruffalo is a nurturing role model to Mark (they pair grow up parentless), protective father to two kids, and attentive husband to his frumpy but pretty wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller). He is the most likeable and grounded character in the film, which is down to the bushy bearded Ruffalo’s ability to make Dave smile, even in the face of uncertainty.

Much like director David Fincher handled the twists and turns of Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl, Bennett Miller’s approach to presenting the true life events of Foxcatcher is marvellously poker-faced. Visually, it has the same chilly, isolated and unpredictable aesthetic, partly due to a lot of uncomfortable static frames and a muted colour range. It’s the 80s but not in a cliched sense, and apart from a snippet of David Bowie’s ‘Fame’, the film deliberately never dips into conventional colour and character of the era.

Cinematographer Greg Fraser’s colour-drained shots played out against composer Rob Simonsen’s sparse score deprives Foxcatcher of any kind of obvious warmth, letting the plot play out like a warning and build-up. Even when the team celebrate back on the farm it’s unsettling to see the character’s jovial – like they’ve dropped their guard – and seeing du Pont laugh and wrestle with his boys is unavoidably tainted in homoeroticism.

Miller has created a suffocating, insular world of seduction, rejection, betrayal and murder, all for the sake of creating the elusive American dream. Carell is magnetic, Tatum a revelation and Ruffalo agreeably paternal. Despite the wrestling, Foxcatcher is not a masculine movie, and delves into depths, complexities and disturbances that will keep you captivated even after the credits roll.