Miles Teller and J K Simmons in the percussion-based psychological thriller Whiplash.
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Whiplash and Foxcatcher show there's more than one way to skin a fox

Despite strikingly similar prodigies and deranged mentors, Whiplash and Foxcatcher offer two very different takes on the mentor/pupil relationship.

Foxcatcher (15)
dir: Bennett Miller

Whiplash (15)
dir: Damien Chazelle

If Malcolm Tucker, the venomous spin doctor from The Thick of It, were to retrain as a music teacher, he would be something like Terence Fletcher, the intimidating tutor at the fictional New York Shaffer Academy in Whiplash. As played by J K Simmons, with more relish than a condiment factory, Fletcher fires off verbal Exocets that can obliterate all self-esteem within a five-mile radius. One agonising scene in which he unmasks an out-of-tune trumpet player makes the McCarthy witch-hunts look like a game of hide and seek. Fletcher seems especially inflamed by talent and ambition. When he spots those qualities in the 19-year-old jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), he’s like a hound that’s caught a whiff of fox.

A mentally deranged mentor also dom­inates Foxcatcher, which is based on real-life events. The Olympic gold-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is invited by the weedy billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to live on his 880-acre Pennsylvania estate and to form the core of the team that will compete for the US in Seoul in 1988. While Fletcher in Whiplash has training and is cruel in his genuine quest for excellence, du Pont is motivated only by patriotism and latent homosexuality.

In its prurient way, the film is terribly excited by this. A midnight wrestling session is shot to suggest that du Pont is passionate about taking Mark up the podium. The movie briefly turns into Behind the Candelabra when Mark snorts cocaine while sporting feathery highlights and too-short shorts. Then it’s back to self-important sobriety for a pep talk at the gym, staged for the benefit of the desiccated mother (Vanessa Redgrave) whose approval du Pont craves. There’s an excruciating moment when the team has to feign gratitude for his rudimentary pointers, like university dons being taught their ABCs. As du Pont instructs a wrestler to mount him, his mother gestures silently for her nurse to remove her from the scene. Anyone who tires of the director Bennett Miller’s lip-smacking glee at his characters’ misery will surely sympathise.

That the prodigies in each film share so many traits suggests a common psychological patterning in the mentor/pupil relationship, or the homogeneous nature of screenwriting courses. Both Andrew and Mark are motherless hunks with a desire to please Daddy and a passing resemblance to a slab of meat. The techniques that their tormentors adopt also have certain nuances in common. Like any torturer worth the salt he pours in your wounds, Fletcher and du Pont use personal information to annihilate their victims. Fletcher cosies up to Andrew in Whiplash and harvests details about his insecurities under cover of chumminess. We have already seen that Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is ineffectual – he apologises when a stranger knocks him on the head. And Andrew wants to please his father – but perhaps not this father. Love he has. Discipline he longs for.

Likewise, du Pont knows that Mark is living in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who was also on the Olympic team. Foxcatcher makes a feast of Mark’s humiliations. When he delivers a speech in a school hall, the film takes an unpleasant delight in cutting from Mark’s sad, monotonous voice to the blank faces of his young audience. As if the pittance he receives for his time weren’t insulting  enough, the cheque is mistakenly made out to his brother. The movie has destroyed him long before du Pont arrives on the scene. Even worse, it makes us feel he didn’t deserve any better.

The films’ differing attitudes towards their protagonists show that there is more than one way to skin a fox. Of course, Whiplash moves at a whipcrack pace that takes its rhythmic cues from drumming (some of the cuts are as fast as the beats in a Buddy Rich solo), whereas Foxcatcher could have been called Tortoisecatcher; it imitates deliberately the pace of wrestling where nothing happens for ages, bar imperceptible shuffling and nudging, until suddenly someone wins.

Yet it comes down to more than that. Both films begin with the same sober wide shot of an ambitious young man at work: Andrew is a cyclone of arms and sweat and hair at the centre of his drumkit, while Mark is grappling alone with a black leather wrestling dummy, as if embroiled in some esoteric sex game. From there, they div­erge. Foxcatcher exploits Mark’s suffering; Whiplash urges Andrew on because it understands his hunger to be great. The differences may come down to the filmmakers’ feelings about their chosen milieu. Whiplash savours the rampant rush of drumming, perhaps to excess. But when du Pont’s mother tells her son that wrestling is “a low sport”, it is easy to imagine those words in the director’s mouth.

Although Whiplash and Foxcatcher need their villains to provide jolts of electricity, neither film can be seen to endorse their behaviour. This is less of a problem in Whiplash, where the editing and cinematography are dynamic enough to supply their own current. The dependency that Foxcatcher places on the chilling Carell, his face anchored by a wheezing prosthetic nose that makes him slump even as he walks, seems like one more subtle betrayal of Mark Schultz.

Fletcher in Whiplash is a more humorous part, though this, too, benefits from funhouse physiognomy. Simmons’s smooth, bulbous head resembles the tip of a drumstick. His tight drum-skin face and baggy neck suggest one of those rubberised old-crone masks popular in joke shops. An unusual (and possibly unresolvable) flaw in the screenplay by the first-time director Damien Chazelle is that this sexist, sizeist and vehemently homophobic teacher offers no bespoke insults to the African-Americans in his class.

It may sound odd to bemoan a character’s lack of racism but it’s the only punch that Whiplash pulls. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge