Thursday, 26 March 2015

Cinderella


For all his austere leanings and weighty Shakespearean back catalogue, Sir Kenneth Branagh has never been afraid to dabble in the blockbuster mainstream. From the comic book bombast of Thor to his muscular Jack Ryan chronicle, Shadow Recruit, the Belfast-born performer seems strongly determined to balance out a directing career otherwise defined by the musings of the Bard.

In many ways, Cinderella represents an apogee of this approach. Dazzling, elegant, grand; Branagh’s Disney adventure is not a retuned, rebooted version of a classic but a straight adaptation of something as familiar to us all as cinema itself. Nothing here will change the world or mould a genre. That matters not. Just go with its cheeky flow, the kaleidoscope of colour and spirited performances, and there are myriad delights to be had. 

If the story itself lacks originality — and this is Cinderella in its purest form — its execution cannot fail to impress. Branagh, that most august of thesps, has crafted a visually stunning feature, overlaying each deliciously rendered frame with gorgeous imagery and sleek aesthetics, his bustling palette wearing the look of some lovingly retouched HD edition of a golden age stalwart. The ultimate effect, at once breathtaking and mildly comforting, should serve to undermine even the most cynical of observers. 

Arguably the film’s least frivolous element, Lily James steps out of the shadow of her simpering Downton Abbey alter ego to fill out the honest and uncomplicated title character, imbuing her with a low-key humanity that never tips into the gormless goody-two-shoes characterisation of the average fairytale heroine. Instead, James brings a realness to her role that reflects the sad strain of an otherwise idyllic childhood, her gentle mother (Hayley Atwell) dying suddenly and leaving Ella in the care of a doting but lonely father (Ben Chaplin).

What happens next is well known. Cate Blanchett arrives as Lady Tremaine, a poised, couture-wielding stepmother so devilish that she keeps a cat, called Lucifer, on a leash. The Australian star, a chameleonic and peerless actress, has great fun playing up to the antagonist stereotype, yet there are layers beneath the surface that might appear mawkish in a weaker grip. She and her gruesome daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) relegate Ella to servitude among the cinders soon after the death of her father, later forbidding her from going to the ball hosted at the royal palace by Kit, the dashing ‘apprentice monarch’ portrayed with jolly earnestness by Richard Madden (fully recovered from his savage demise in Game of Thrones). 


Naturally, Ella does indeed go to the big event thanks to the intervention of Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother, a bundle of cut-glass energy given only the briefest cameo, though it is decisive enough to transform pumpkins into gilded carriages (“I don’t usually work with squashes: too mushy”), mice into stallions and lizards into footmen. While Branagh is clearly treating his adaptation as a serious enterprise, he never scrimps on the fun, steering an endlessly endearing romp through unplaceable, outrageously bucolic European backdrops and a love story most of us know inside out. 

In our hardbitten age, a movie as eternally optimistic as this could feel out of place. Disney, of course, knows exactly what it is doing, sticking close to a formula in which it is steeped. The director simply adds class to an obvious studio attempt to retain the interest of the Frozen crowd and if the wonderfully choreographed dance sequence — a blur of soft swishing skirts and swooping camera work — towards the end does not capture the imagination of the masses, nothing will. 

That Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have injected a charge of genuine human discourse into their fantasy speaks to a level of thoughtful engagement not necessarily required by the target audience. The wicked stepmother has her demons, the handsome prince his own crushing heartbreak to overcome. These ancillary strands underpin the spectacle and ensure, with a surprising degree of subtlety, that Cinderella’s charm lasts beyond the stroke of midnight. 

A version of this article was first published here.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Run All Night


So, here we are again. As his delicate turn in Schindler’s List fades from the memory, Liam Neeson’s crusade to dominate the cinema listings continues unabated, his reforged action-star career logging another gritty chapter. From the tired Taken franchise to the likes of The Grey, the Ballymena native is currently the go-to guy for middling thrillers in need of a charge of star dust. 

Fortunately, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Run All Night hits much more than it misses. Relying on his lead actor's hulking physicality and ability to play weathered, brow-beaten Celts like few others, this is a stylish, creatively crafted gangster flick, more than worthy of the public’s attention. In fact it is, arguably, the best output from Neeson for some time. 

He and Collet-Serra have formed a strange double act in recent years, collaborating, with unremarkable results, on 2011’s Unknown, an inoffensive paranoid mystery, and last year’s fun, if silly, Non-Stop. Neeson represents an unorthodox muse, yet the Spaniard has found much to work with in his scowling bullshit-free persona. 


Here he plays ageing mob button man Jimmy ‘the Gravedigger’ Conlon, a listless, drunken reprobate who only remains on the payroll due to a deep-rooted friendship with crime boss Sean Maguire (the excellent Ed Harris). Indeed, within five minutes, every Irish mafia cliché has been handily checked: bars, booze, hangovers and bent cops. Four of the principal players are called Jimmy, Sean, Michael and Danny; there’s a Pat, too, for good measure. Even a framed picture of the old sod sits, comfortingly, on a wall nearby.

Sure, Run All Night lacks the meanness of The Departed, or the breathtaking elegance of Road to Perdition — a film it largely apes, save for the modern setting and a slight deviation in the story — but this soon registers as something nicely off-piste from the creaking template that Neeson has followed in recent years. 

Unlike the dull and basically invincible Bryan Mills of the Taken series, Conlon is a horribly flawed human being, predictably so, maybe, yet real enough to appear interesting. Soaked in his own vices, haunted by the cast of stooges and snitches, enemies and friends that he has done away with for Sean, the Gravedigger shambles between his early scenes like the great husk of a figure once called man. He begs for cash and is forced to don a Santa suit in order to fix his heater. As one might expect, Jimmy’s son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), is less than enamoured of his dad. 

Their simmering antipathy seems insignificant, however, when Michael, a straight-laced limo driver and dedicated family man, witnesses Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), Sean’s low-life progeny, executing an Albanian gangster. On the cusp of his own murder, he is saved, decisively, by Conlon the elder, an act laced with shattering consequences. 

From this point on, Collet-Serra does a sturdy job of conjuring a tidy chase movie that feels darker than its glitzy sheen and hyperactive tone might otherwise suggest. There is genuine friction between father and son, their race to stay ahead of Maguire — now wracked with the spirit of vengeance — failing to quell the fury felt by Michael about the nature of his scrappy upbringing. Kinnaman, underwhelming in RoboCop, draws on the edgy undertones and magnetic sense of focus that made him so watchable in the American remake of The Killing. Meatier tension also presents itself in exchanges between Neeson and Harrison, where the sight of two grizzled veterans butting heads serves as a sedate antidote to the hectic pace that Collet-Serra employs from time to time.

Perhaps in an attempt to raise his game, he leans on visual kineticism more than is required. A series of tricky techniques are utilised, adding little substance, but they at least signal his intention to produce a somewhat more memorable film than the well-worn narrative should reasonably allow. Early on, he swoops between geographical locations from on high, soaring above the endless outer margins of New York City. Later, for no apparent reason, the camera veers in close to a chainlink fence, and then through it, a Fincheresque move that grabs the attention if nothing else. 

Neeson presses on manfully through all of it, like this generation's Charles Bronson, minus the kitsch. His decidedly old-school air of grimy survivalism propels him towards a measure of redemption. Latterly, Common makes an appearance, crowbarred into the proceedings as an ice-veined killer savant. The move jars but, like its brawny protagonist, Run All Night just about endures.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

It Follows


In the annals of filmic frights, the obscure, unnamed spectre which haunts David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is not, ostensibly at least, likely to challenge the more recognisable entities of the horror brand. Its motivations are completely unknown, so too is its source. Wielding few obvious powers besides the ability to possess random people, familiar and unfamiliar to Mitchell’s youthful cast, this poltergeist-cum-demon-cum-angry spirit could be forgotten in a less assured picture.

In his steady grasp, however, the Follower (for want of a grander name) is rendered terrifying, a relentless, stalking presence which glowers, inside and beyond the immediate frame, for most of the film. With this as the impassive antagonist, It Follows is transformed into a thoroughly affecting chiller, ripe with a sense of cool and a charge of intense foreboding that runs throughout its confidently glacial progress.

Maika Monroe, who broke out in last year’s bonkers but brilliant The Guest, excels again here as Jay, an engaging lead blessed with easy charm. Monroe finds much to work with as she goes from pretty and cheery teen to the desperate prey of a terrible darkness. In the early scenes, Jay’s world is turned upside down when a new boyfriend, Hugh, reveals that he has slept with her for the sole purpose of transferring the hex that hovers above his head, one which manifests itself in the form of murderous individual human automatons, distinguishable by their steady strides and blank stares. The bane is passed between lovers, like some warped venereal disease, reverting to its previous unwilling owner upon the death of the present mark.


She is understandably devastated after this betrayal – capped by a suitably creepy episode in which the chivalrous beau confines her in a wheelchair and explains the new reality – a situation made worse when she discovers that Hugh is indeed telling the truth. Her only hope of survival, for a while, is either to foist the unwanted evil on the next unsuspecting man or try to outpace it. She chooses the latter path, aided by her sister Kelly, friend Yara, a former lover, Greg, and Paul, whose unrequited affection for Jay registers as interesting instead of especially pathetic.

Crucially, Mitchell has populated his piece with believable personalities, warm and good-natured individuals radiating their own distinct identities. Even Hugh is no mere villain, driven by the need to survive rather than any desire to prove his masculine prowess; the Follower has stripped him of all superficial priorities. 

Taking a narrative that occasionally borders on frustrating, the detached air hinting at a larger mystery waiting to unspool, It Follows harvests much from an oppressive, paranoid atmosphere. The director places his story in myriad sparsely populated suburban locales, faintly unsettling characters in themselves. The Detroit setting eventually shows itself through a prism of abandoned urban sprawl, where a verdant invasion creeps over the factories and brickwork of a vast metropolis given back to Gaia. 

Mitchell captures all of this with genuine panache, often shooting the action from watchful, far-off points — springing one subtle surprise, as the group lolls on a beach, with a nifty dash of misdirection — or affixing his camera to moving props as a means of wringing maximum tension from heightened moments. A peppering of genre tropes, from floating household items to ghoulish strangers, anchor the substance, not the style. Yet he does commit to a visceral impact alongside the technical accomplishments: bleeding all but the necessary sounds from the screen; colouring his vision with earthy shades and cloudy tones.

Late on, a frisson of sexual tension complicates matters further. The expedience of sex comes to undermine its emotional significance, though, in actuality, coitus proves no better at staving off the inevitability of the approaching terror than the key conundrum of the film’s unnerving premise. Flee to the ends of the earth, goes the message, it matters not; this curse may never be shirked.

Struggling to bring such a bleak prognosis to a neat conclusion, It Follows suffers some jitters in the latter stages. Any pretensions of context for its ghostly happenings are ultimately abandoned, while a set piece based around a deserted swimming pool offers no discernible point to go with its admittedly striking tableau.

Driven by a curiously evocative electro score, recalling the synthy menace of John Carpenter’s finest work, this is gripping fare that explores surprisingly profound themes and skirts around convention without succumbing to it. If a filmmaker of Mitchell’s considerable stylistic talents can resist the allure of the mainstream, there should be many more scares in store. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Selma


There is a prevailing wisdom in Hollywood that any film centred on the exploits of important historical figures is likely to attract significant awards-season buzz. If the figure represents triumph over oppression — a theme favoured by most of us, to be fair — then that film and its cast are likely to feature heavily in the conversation come February. 

In truth, this narrative is not especially accurate and for every Schindler’s List there is a Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. That said, however, the snubbing of Selma in every major category, save Best Picture, at the upcoming Academy Awards is puzzling. Ava DuVernay’s civil rights drama is far from flawless yet, by the same measure, it deserves more than a clearly tokenistic nod at the establishment’s annual congratulatory jamboree. 

Selma’s greatest strength rests in its emotional power. Underplayed and sensible enough to allow the subject matter to speak for it, this is, nonetheless, a handsome portrait of a bleak time which still arouses horrified awe. It tugs at the corners of civilisation’s guilt, going for the wells of heartfelt solidarity we instinctively feel with the downtrodden. If exploitative is an inappropriate term to attach here, resonant is not. 

DuVernay finds her noble avatar in the increasingly adaptable form of David Oyelowo. As Martin Luther King he draws humanity, both real and inspiring, from a character most will only ever know by his deeds. This preacher-activist’s non-violent approach to demanding fairness made him no less a despised individual in the sneering, sweat-soaked, racist South, but Oyelowo adds a dash of cold-eyed political manoeuvring to King’s aspirations. 

What King wants, of course, is startlingly simple. It’s 1965 and, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the previous year, life for the black citizens of Dixie is plagued by prejudice. Voting appears a largely impossible dream thanks to the deep-rooted institutional bigotry rampant throughout the regional bureaucracy. In the opening minutes, Annie Lee Cooper’s (Oprah Winfrey, also serving as a producer) attempt to register is stymied by an arbitrary spot test; later, a strategic discussion by King and friends offers up a particularly lucid précis of the wide ranging problems that stem from being kept off the rolls. In return for maintaining his position as the civilised face of equal rights, King requires federal intervention on the issue from President Lyndon B. Johnson, a purely political animal played with coarse, stooping pugnacity by Tom Wilkinson.

King and the other commanders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — including James Bevel (Common), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) — settle on Selma, Alabama, as the next staging post in their protest campaign. Infested with hatred and overseen by an especially inelegant sheriff, it possesses all the elements required to make a statement. By hinting at an edge of publicity-sniffing expedience in the crusaders’ actions, DuVernay, bravely, goes beyond the quasi-sainthood bestowed on King in the years since his assassination. 

In its meaty middle, Selma does much to impress and appal, capturing, without cynicism, the genuine struggles of black Americans to enjoy full citizenship and the determination of certain whites, whether by guile or by savagery, to keep them from these. At the head of the latter camp is Tim Roth. He has tremendous fun portraying Governor George Wallace, one of history’s leading morons, who spends most of the picture burbling racial slurs and using vile phrases like ‘cradle of the Confederacy’ with no small amount of pride. Incredibly, this is Wallace coloured as an actual person and not the arch villain one would expect to behave in so despicable a manner.

Ranged against him is an army of peace, seeking only its basic humanity and thus, when the hammer falls, when the governor and his network of good ole boys decide that they have had enough of this uppity agitation, their reaction will chill the blood. The director moulds into a horrifying spectacle those seminal events of Bloody Sunday, March 1965, when state troopers and a local posse beat down, with impunity, silent marchers on the titular city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The watching press stared in disbelief that day and DuVernay promptly steps into the swirling haze of an all-out assault, civilians falling under the batons of authorities sworn to protect them. The camera lingers on a mounted vigilante riding down a fleeing woman; it does not recoil as he bowls her over with a bull whip. This vision is barely removed from another century, a useful reminder that there existed only the smallest shafts of light between the sweltering brutality of the plantation and the era of Jim Crow. 


What tumbles from these terrible snapshots is not anger, but sadness, a sense of regret that man may do unto himself such ills. Oyelowo personifies dignity — a word used more than once — in the face of every provocation, turning in a gripping, multifaceted, often unreadable performance, as ripe with wit, realism and gravitas as it is with the kind of soaring, heaven-sent rhetorical skills that occur only once in a generation. However reined in he may be, Oyelowo’s mature depiction is career-defining and plainly Oscar-worthy. 

The film missteps from time to time, dragging King’s apparently fraught, if hugely undercooked, domestic situation into view. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), ultimately becomes a nagging distraction, a rather unjust fate for a woman who dedicated so much of her life to gilding this movement’s legacy. Ironically, for all the subversion of King as a blank and prematurely absent icon, he remains somewhat unknowable by the end; the workings of his mind, the depths of his potential, are kept hidden. Perhaps a running time of two hours is simply insufficient to look beneath the visage of this towering presence.

Selma will not thrill, that is not its purpose. It goes deeper than that, the beautiful simplicity of its story imbuing those underlying ideals with profound significance. In the aftermath of Ferguson, Paris and every other despicable instance of rampant intolerance, even in this age of Obama, no generation should forget that there is much work yet to be done.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Inherent Vice


How cinemagoers choose to receive Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice depends on the category into which they fall. For the casual punter who arrives on a whim hoping to catch whatever is playing, this woozy, tangled and bewildering Californian noir might grate long before its laborious two and half hours are done. On the other hand, surrender to its flow and there are rewards to be had. 

Based on Thomas Pynchon’s trippy 2009 novel of the same name, Inherent Vice comes laced with a sense of creeping confusion; it serves up few answers to indecipherable questions. A refusal to settle, to actually tell a story worthy of any audience’s attention, should not, of course, be interpreted as indicative of poor craftsmanship. Anderson represents American cinema’s genius conscience, a genuine aesthete pulling at the edges of the franchise-saturated studio system. Ironically, his relaxed sensibilities and eye for telling tales in so peculiar a manner both elevate and hobble his vision. 

In truth, it feels like a picture composed of genre peers’ offcuts: the zanier bits from The Big Lebowski; a couple of scenes in Chinatown lacking logic; undercooked snatches of LA Confidential’s hardboiled patois. Anderson is too much of an individual to rip off others but, for all the originality of his work, this is hardly virgin soil. 

The messy plot, set in a 1970s Los Angeles that appears less utopian than grotty, is sticky with the doped fog seeping from stoned private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the nominal hero of the piece. Sportello operates out of a medical surgery and saunters between small-time cases ever under the influence of his favoured drug. Sandal clad, unhurried, Doc’s meandering existence is upended by the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (a damaged Katherine Waterson), whose relationship with Eric Roberts’s reptilian property magnate, Mickey Wolfmann, has apparently gone south.

Seeking her out, Doc plunges into a world of corruption and subversives, narcs and spooks, finding clarity in his stupor. With the aid of some surprisingly sharp detective skills and the gentle nudging of expositor-cum-subconscious Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), he burrows into a quirky central conspiracy. The gaps are filled intermittently, yet the overriding impression is that Anderson does not want us to grasp all of a story that shifts, idly, from strand to strand. Straggling threads tie up here and there, without really committing to any discernible point. Indeed, this is a film wearing instead the look of a test, one requiring the humble viewer to either tune into its strange rhythms or get up and leave.


More pleasure can be found in the host of thrilling performances, in front of the camera and behind it. Phoenix has never looked as baked as he does here, wide-eyed and affable. There is, however, a glittering keenness beneath the surf-bum exterior that saves him from mere buffoonery; it screams talent. 

As the polar opposite of Doc, Josh Brolin outshines even Phoenix as a hard-charging asshole cop who goes by the nickname "Bigfoot" and despises the rumpled PI’s "hippy bastard" social circle. Brolin luxuriates in his character’s suppressed, crew-cut, Nixonesque conservatism, hollering at cooks in Japanese ("MOTTO PANUKEIKU!") and sucking on numerous phallic objects with aplomb. Benicia Del Toro — arguably the only person who knows what’s going on — shows up, too, as Doc’s salty lawyer with the appetite of a sailor. 

As a filmmaker, Anderson’s abilities are plainly undeniable. He is an auteur completely in control of his medium and even the harshest critics must admire the confidence with which these hazily manic narrative pit stops are conveyed. Alongside regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit, Anderson reveals panache in the framing, where his cocky visual style seems like a high-end reboot of the 1970s’ grainier moments. This kitsch pre-Boogie Nights palette, which continues to fade in society’s collective memory, is gorgeous to behold.

The most acclaimed entries in the Anderson cannon are that latter ode to porn’s golden era and There Will Be Blood, an angular masterpiece. Unnerving and magnificent, neither could be ignored. Like it or loathe it, buy in or opt out, his latest is just as tricky to disregard.

A version of this article was first published here.

Friday, 30 January 2015

A Most Violent Year


J.C. Chandor does not tend to play it safe. His debut as both writer and director was 2011’s Margin Call, a horrifying depiction of clinical boardroom cynicism run amok on the eve of the Great Recession, its ensemble cast idly playing God with the world’s money. Two years later, All Is Lost seemed no less dramatic as Robert Redford’s nameless, taciturn mariner faced his own immortality engulfed by the solitude of the high seas. Chandor is unfazed by boldness.

For all their grand themes, however, both of his previous films played out in startling close-up; death and global penury felt terribly real. That similar intimacy courses through the veins of Chandor’s latest offering, A Most Violent Year, should not register as surprising, yet this is a story laid over a grander canvas: the feted, nebulous, arguably unattainable American Dream, an aspiration incapable of being caged in the stifling confines of a Wall Street office or the lonely hull of a stricken yacht. 

The year in question is 1981. Hardworking immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a successful business selling home heating oil in the endless suburbs of the New York City area. Prosperous, married to Jessica Chastain’s beautiful Anna and installed in a finely furnished home, Morales has pulled himself up by his boots straps; he is the living embodiment of the Republican ideal. 

The evolution of success in this context is, naturally, the acquisition of even more and when he pumps every last cent into a precarious land deal, Morales risks losing everything for which he has grafted. Those efforts are not helped when the ongoing targeted theft, by persons unknown, of his fuel trucks becomes an expensive problem. Such activities, of course, constitute a mere drop in the ocean during one the city’s most violent years — a statistical fact reinforced by the radio reports of crime and murder peppering the background of a forbidding, artfully conceived tale. 


Chandor’s film is a powerful one, simmering and, despite its title and overall tone, remarkably free of actual violence. The little bloodshed that occurs is brief and brutal, though the plot takes precedence over any gratuitous savagery. A sense of impending upheaval manifests itself in everything from the precarious health of Morales’s business to the raft of malpractice indictments handed down by an intensely ambitious assistant DA (the quietly leering David Oyelowo). Threats to his safety and his family lurk in the frigid shadows. To his credit, the director excels in weaving these strands into a complex and genuinely fascinating adult drama. 

A pair of technically adept, thrillingly kinetic chase scenes serve to underline Chandor’s ability to stage a spectacle but the triumphs form properly in quieter moments of human interaction. They rest on towering central performances from Isaac and Chastain, two actors on the perpetual rise capable of turning their considerable talents to almost any role.

The latter is bewitching as a man whose slightly shifty air never robs him of his decency. He is, to all intents and purposes, not a crook and there is something hugely admirable about an enduring disdain for the underhand dealings that appear necessary to get ahead. Isaac — also distinguishing himself at present in the Alex Garland-directed sci-fi thriller Ex Machina — has developed into a chameleonic performer, utterly convincing as the steely business tycoon, both serious and upstanding, who cares deeply for his employees’ welfare. Morales’s interactions with sensitive driver Julian (Elyes Gabel), conducted in English at his own insistence, are laced with a paternalistic subtext that will never be elucidated and his considered, discomforting sales technique sits, just, on the right side of hard-selling sleaze. 

By his side, the ever outstanding Chastain is all cold civility, a woman of singular focus. Somewhat scornful of her husband’s naive decency, raised, one is led to believe, in fairly hardbitten surroundings, Anna is an equal and autonomous partner in the Morales enterprise, as willing to cook the books (‘standard industry practice’ to use her casual parlance) as she is to execute a dying stag by the roadside. Chastain’s role lacks the all-consuming focus of Mya, the obsessive CIA analyst in the searing Zero Dark Thirty, but in her elegant grip they are both mighty totems of credible female strength.

A Most Violent Year was snubbed in every major category for February’s Academy Awards, a baffling decision given its darkly muscular swagger and cool pedigree. Yet, perhaps it is too difficult to categorise, a crime epic with little discernible villainy, a period piece largely unconcerned with winking and nodding at its dated setting. 

The Academy is not necessarily unafraid of the weird or playful — the nomination for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman represents proof enough. Chandor, however, conjures nothing so arch. His subtleties, his abundance of wintry greys, suggest that this picture is far from the conclusive masterpiece normally lauded by the establishment. It’s their loss. 

A version of this article was first published here.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Whiplash


J.K. Simmons gives the performance of his life in Whiplash, sophomore director Damien Chazelle’s scorching jazz opus, fully justifying his recent win at the Golden Globes in the best supporting actor category and propelling himself, almost certainly, into pole position for the same award at next month’s Oscars. 

The ever superb Simmons has made a living out of portraying gruff autocrats and falls comfortably under the broad heading marked ‘That guy from that thing.’ His terrifying band conductor, Terence Fletcher, however, is infinitely more fascinating than almost every other character he has portrayed in a career taking in a diverse slate, from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy to the Jason Reitman-directed Juno

Fletcher, to put it bluntly, is a monster, an arrogant, vicious bully whose rein of terror over his in-house band at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory feels absolute. Wielding a volcanic temper and the ability to shatter the confidence of grown men, Fletcher’s ferocious conflict with jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) catapults Chazelle’s astonishing psychological drama towards a breathless conclusion. 

In suppressing his fratty leanings, Teller plays his part with rare gusto, banishing the memories of that ropey fare (DivergentFootloose, 21 & OverThat Awkward Moment, to name a few) in which he has passed his time thus far. He possesses a fine ability to slide between personalities, gentle and polite in one moment, pushy and abrasive in the next. It is a gift which is tested in the extreme by Chazelle, who plunges his main character — a talented, but fragile, young musician — into the bear pit overseen by Simmons’s tyrant. 

Eager to please, Neiman is unprepared for what awaits him: a sustained mental assault offset, initially, by Fletcher’s obviously insincere pre-session pep talk. Intensely ambitious, the new recruit is, nevertheless, floored by the velocity of his notional mentor’s anger. Within minutes Neiman is a sobbing mess as Fletcher cruelly twists personal details offered in friendship only minutes before. 


‘Whiplash’ is also the title of Hank Levy’s standout composition — chosen for its maddening complexity — and this is a relevant link. Violent tension rips through Chazelle’s film as if it were a car wreck, inescapable and utterly destructive. Fletcher channels every sneering teacher you ever wanted to punch but couldn’t; Simmons basks in the glow of such a deliciously conceived villain. In one scene he drives three drumming hopefuls long into the night until they can match his tempo, unleashing upon them a torrent of world-beating verbal abuse targeting all minorities in the room: the Jews, the Irish, gay people. 

This poisonous atmosphere seeps into Neiman’s pores, corroding his kindly nature, the tentative romance with a nice girl and the relationship with his father (a solid Paul Reiser), at whose table he insults a gathering of friends in an unnecessarily snide dismantlement of small-town values. It even chisels away at the tower of fear upon which Fletcher stands to survey his meek charges. When the older man dares to consider a change of lead drummer, Neiman, fuelled by a desire that sees Teller subject himself to prolonged physical torture — equal parts perspiration and blood — explodes in a fraught five-minute sequence that takes in a blown tyre, a car crash and even a brawl. 

Chazelle has explored this musical milieu before with his somewhat abstract debut feature, the little-seen festival favourite Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and it is clearly a world in which he is invested. Save for the veracity of an oft-repeated anecdote about Charlie Parker’s ascent to jazz immortality, his latest appears steeped, for the uninitiated anyway, in genre lore. The prophet of this unpredictable medium is the white-faced, black-clad, gimlet-eyed Simmons, who owns the film, even with Teller’s quite brilliant input. 

Fletcher is no mere cartoon, eventually displaying depths that do not quite tally with initial impressions. His tears at the death of a former protégé are sincere, so too is a friendly conversation with the small girl he encounters in a corridor. Later, as fate takes him in a new direction, he explains, with gentle clarity, that his job is not to patronise mediocrity but to spark greatness, by whatever means necessary. A wounded lion is still a lion, of course, and the show-stopping finale serves as a chilling reminder that those early eruptions simply covered darker elements. 

That finale is transformative; Neiman sheds potential for greatness. In doing so, Teller strains every muscle to convey something fleeting and largely indescribable. Sweat-drenched, alive with an urgency that only great films can induce, if Whiplash cannot be classed as a thriller, it is no less thrilling. 

An edited version of this article was first published here