Let’s look at some of the rules that this movie exemplifies:
- Always Have a Left Turn: We have seen so many tough-coach movies that we enter this movie supremely confident in where it’s going, only to be thrown for many, many loops. It’s so rare to sit through the second half of a movie, exclaiming to yourself in awe: “I just have no idea where this is even going!”
- The Hero Can’t Stand Outside of the Problem: The biggest thing that keeps us unsteady is the fact that both of our combatants are fairly repellent, and as each one becomes worse, we’re naturally inclined to shift our identification to the other, but unable to do so. The snarling masochist and the snarling sadist trap each other (and the audience) in a feedback loop that ratchets up the the tension exponentially. It’s easier to write about a victimized prodigy getting abused by a sadistic teacher (as in The Black Swan), or a rapacious pupil scaring his teacher (as in The Color of Money), but this movie puts the most dangerous pairing in the same room and lets each escalate the other’s intensity higher and higher.
- The Ending Doesn’t Determine the Meaning: One problem with these sorts of movies is that it’s so hard to keep the ending from determining the meaning—If the pupil succeeds, it was all worth it, and if he fails, it wasn’t, right? Some great movies have tried to have it both ways (The two movies listed above, as well as Downhill Racer and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) but this movie just may top them all. The climax of this movie mercilessly toys with our hard-wired need to determine if it’s “all worth it”, whipping our emotions back and forth several times. Ultimately, the only conclusion we can reach is that, no matter how this ends, both sides will lose, because “greatness” itself may be an unhealthy and inhumane concept.