dir: Bennett Miller
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.