09/13/2014 12:16 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2014

In Foxcatcher Steve Carell Astounds as a Psycho 1-Percenter

Leonard Adam via Getty Images

A hallmark of Toronto this year is the large number of high-profile films that carry the tag "based on a true story." The trend may be driven by market calculations and also, possibly, reality TV. Or maybe it's that the world has gotten so weird no fiction can compete with it. I locate this turning point with Bob Dole's endorsement on TV of Viagra.

Some of us, however, continue to prefer stories that emerge whole cloth, with all their quirks and flaws, out of a filmmaker's vision and imagination. In fact, such films are often truthier. The Clouds of Sils Maria by Olivier Assayas is not only a magical journey -- it tells me more about the bonds between women than any fact based tale.

A standout at this year's Toronto is Foxcatcher by Bennett Miller (soon to appear at the New York Film Festival). Here's yet another feature based on a sensational true life story -- yet this mesmerizing film (which won Best Director for Miller at Cannes) engages on so many levels, it practically reinvents the genre and renders the whole question of reality-based or not moot.

A hybrid of true crime and sports drama, Foxcatcher delves into the disturbing story of wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and their fateful encounter with billionaire coach John du Pont (Steve Carell, cast against type), heir to the vast chemical fortune.

When we first meet wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), he's already won the gold at the 1984 Olympics. His life is now a lonely round of training routines and solitary evenings in shabby quarters among his wrestling medals. No endorsements for this champ. Opportunity knocks when Mark's invited by John du Pont (Steve Carell) to join the U.S. team preparing for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and train at Foxcatcher, Du Pont's estate near Valley Forge. Du Pont also wants Mark's beloved brother Dave on board as a trainer but Dave refuses to uproot his family.

Mark moves to a sleek chalet on du Pont's sprawling estate, a luxe world of rolling hills, polished interiors, and a top notch wrestling center, all of it forming a stark contrast to Mark's old life. Du Pont spoils Mark with gifts and praise, at the same time pushing his limits with relentless training -- and introducing him to coke. There's something seriously out of joint, though, namely the psyche of Mark's benefactor. A turning point is reached when Dupont calls his protégé "an ungrateful ape" and never seeks to apologize. Eventually he coaxes Mark's brother Dave into joining Team Foxcatcher and the stage is set for disaster.

The three men are each meticulously drawn. Channing Tatum's hunkiness serves him well. In a fully invested turn, he looks brutalized and almost simian, with a forward thrust jaw and wrestler's gait, pulling off his matches with authority. He burrows deep into inarticulate rage, a keg of dynamite ready to explode. The main center of sympathy is Ruffalo as Dave, a family man and all round good guy who's struggled to reach a rung in the middle class, props up his brother, and believes reason can smooth out the kinks.

But the film belongs to Steve Carell in a transformative turn as Du Pont, his every moment on screen racheting up a sense of dread. The dead eyes and bloodless smile, along with peculiar pauses in his speech, suggest derangement held in check. His attachment to Mark skirts the homo-erotic; that he comes on like a father figure is beyond grotesque. Du Pont is also an ornithologist - with his prosthetic beak he resembles an eagle sighting his prey -- and self-styled patriot, who laments America's lack of values -- "I want to see this country soar again." With acidic irony, this portrait of a sicko is set against footage from promos made by the Du Pont family to celebrate its illustrious history.

Foxcatcher weaves its spell through the cunning use of pregnant silences to build an ominous mood. Scenes veiled in a gray mist are shot from behind the looming black head of a statue; foxes look like jackals. Miller brilliantly meshes social critique with a B horror movie.

Some viewers may wonder why the Schultz brothers didn't spot Dupont's craziness. Maybe as blue collar types with limited social exposure they just wrote it off as eccentricity. Others may see Dupont's villainous one-percenter as emblematic of his caste. I don't think the director wants to go there quite; that would be too on the nose and for all its tabloid overtones Foxcatcher is too elegant for that. Certainly, though, it's a cautionary tale about the dangers of limitless cash allied with arrogance and delusion.