First point: Foxcatcher is, I am certainly, exactly the film director Bennett Miller wanted it to be. It is too precise, too focused, and too consistent for anything else to be the case. Second point: that's not really much of an excuse.

A true story of psychological gamesmanship between one of the more peculiar members of the du Pont family and a pair of Olympic wrestling medalist brothers, Foxcatcher is a film that ends in tragedy, and Jesus Christ, is it ever eager to foreshadow that fact. The film is drenched in funereal sobriety; not one single frame of one single scene accidentally perks up enough to admit anything but an oppressive sense of fatalism. This is true of the performances, which are hushed and mournful. It is true of the screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, which never passes up an opportunity to sadly point at some signifier of out-of-control class-based privilege and remind us that, you guys, the rich think of poor people as disposable objects. It is true in almost hilariously over-the-top ways of cinematography, by Grieg Fraser, who I have taken to thinking of one of the great new talents in his field across a handful of top-notch projects in the last few years, and at a technical level, what he's up to in Foxcatcher is hard to fault. Everything might be lit like the inside of a centuries-old mausoleum, but it would be impossible to do a better job of it. Still, the whole thing is so weepingly earnest that it could almost be silly, if it wasn't so inert and suffocating.

The more important of the brothers, for the purposes of drama, is Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum), who has labored his whole wrestling career under the shadow of older sibling Dave (Mark Ruffalo), even after their twin Olympic triumphs. When we meet them, in the mid-'80s, they've both sunk into obscurity, living and training in Wisconsin. And it is here that Mark is found by the agents of John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell), who has decided that the best way to leave his mark on the world and throw off the spectre of his dismissive mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in what amounts to a cameo), is to personally oversee the training of a new U.S. wrestling team that can compete and win in the 1988 Olympics, proving American can-do dominance to the whole world (the film does not clarify - among the many, many things it does not clarify - that in 1984, the Communist world sat out the American-hosted Olympics, and thus everybody who won left Los Angeles with something of an asterisk following their name). Mark is to be the centerpiece of that team. Eventually, after completely seducing Mark, du Pont succeeds in dragging along Dave and his family as well, all in the name of his warped quest to say "fuck you" to Mommy, hiding his intentions behind a patriotic veneer. And eventually, his patrician, patronising treatment of the Schulzes, and everyone else poorer than he is (which describes virtually every human being alive), leads to... murder. Not a spoiler. The spirit of pointless, brutal death lies over the whole goddamn movie, as suffocatingly as it lay over Miller's fiction debut, Capote. Only in that case, the murder is how things started, and so the pall it cast at least made some kind of tonal sense. Nine-tenths of Foxcatcher is chilly and grim just for the sake of chilliness and grimness.

The point of all this, as presented by the film, is "something something American exceptionalism, blahblah class war". Oh, it's easy to figure out what the film meant to say: there are too many American flags clogging up all the sets for it to be secret for more than a few scenes that the film is setting its eyes on showy, insubstantial patriotism. And from the distant, alien performance Carell gives beneath a grotesque cake of latex that makes him look like a lizard, and which he permits to do almost all of the acting on his behalf, it's clear that the film wants us to be thinking about the distance between the super-wealthy and the rest of humanity, who a literally impossible for those super-wealthy to understand as members of the same species. But it being obvious what the themes are meant to be does not, in any way, mean that the film is actually doing the work of exploring those themes. As handsomely, and fussily, as the film's assembly no doubt is, it's all very shallow. One does not experience the film's message on either an intellectual or emotional level; one puzzles it out. The monotonously bleak tone certainly doesn't help the film connect, either: it's as dry as dry can be, as engaging as tax instructions and just about as intellectually stimulating.

The performances by Tatum and Ruffalo do, in fairness, threaten to bring a living humanity to the proceedings. Tatum's alternately needy and resentful approach to his father-exploiter figure is striking enough, making flexible use of the actor's chiseled features (made meatier through some modest prosthetics), and offering a hint of genuinely wounded self-awareness beneath his glossy magazine looks, that he even draws something vivid and intense out of Carell, who is otherwise playing up all the stiffest, weirdest parts of du Pont in his odd neck angles and sniffy accent, and feeling more like a collection of notes than a character. Ruffalo, in by far the smallest of the three lead roles, makes up an entire performance out of grace notes; his delicate approaches to his brother, his twitchy discomfort at having to read out a few lines of hagiography about du Pont and his wrestling program, the way he talks gently but commandingly to his benefactor, like a dumb child. Between them, these two actors manage to make entire scenes of Foxcatcher feel like a human story worth the telling, even as every element of the directing, writing, cinematography, set design, and audio mix are insistently trying to embalm the scenario and lock it in a vacuum-sealed glass case.

There's a good version of this story: one with this exact cast and script, frankly, kitted out with more freedom to play up the pathetic absurdities, to let the characters live and breath rather than grimly march through their pre-ordained tragedy. There's a version withonly a handful of tweaks that's genuinely about the predation of the thoughtless rich, rather than one that blankly states "the rich are inhuman" and then proves it by encouraging Carell to play John du Pont as a taxidermied heron. There's a version where the tragedy feels like it grows out of the character relationships, rather than plonked down arbitrarily on a movie that has laid the groundwork for it only by being so damned mirthless. Foxcatcher is, in fact, just about the most tedious version of its story that I can imagine. It is a finely detailed as a dusty-covered oil painting, and every bit as static and lifeless.