January 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a first year drumming student at an esteemed music school in New York City, Shaffer Conservatory. It’s consistently ranked the top music conservatory in the United States He’s second chair in a freshman band within the school. It’s a band that plays nicely. The kind of band where if it sounds good enough to the untrained ear of an audience, it is good enough. By most standards everybody in this band is excellent. They’re the kind of young musicians who stood out in their high schools with effortless natural talent and an obvious potential future as session musicians or at least getting girls’ numbers in weekend shows when they aren’t at their real jobs. They aspire to be any chair in large well-regarded orchestras, or to be a dependable background player on a bigger name musician’s studio session record.
Lurking in the shadows, around every corner of this school is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is immediately recognizable as the archetypal task master seen in so many films before such as, most recently, Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, as well as Louise Fleicher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Louis Gossett Jr. in Officer and a Gentleman, Morpheus in The Matrix, Pei Mei in Kill Bill and so on. They’re there to turn the protagonist into the superhuman hero they’re destined to be, that we paid to see. He complements students, challenges them to do better and then dismisses them as just flippantly all in the space of a single sentence. He’s abusive and manipulative in every way imaginable. It’s not clear if he does it for his own sense of accomplishment, or if he’s doing it out of a love for producing great musicians. Perhaps a bit of both. Andrew understands this immediately and plays Fletcher’s game well. An already highly disciplined drummer, he develops monk-like focus on his music and Fletcher’s expectations for first chair in his competitive band of students.
As the film’s story plays out, Fletcher brings Andrew into his competition band to be second chair on the drums- or first chair- or third chair- whatever the quality of his latest performance merits in any sense of the term quality. The dance writer-director Damien Chazelle choreographs between the two characters is at once exhilarating in ways only the movies can provide and utterly devastating by how believable the tet-a-tete proves to be. Everybody has studied under the tutelage of such rigorous, unrepentantly critical teachers or instructors or professors (or drill sergeants) with horror stories laughed off in adult hood, or frowned upon when their own children first encounter such commandants of the academic world. The student pushes himself to a point of blind fury and the teacher gives a momentary, knowing smile of mission accomplished then it’s back to work; his job is never done and his students will thank him in the end. Or not. Whiplash plays with this dynamic using razor sharp observation, both acquiescing to the audiences’ expectations and just as quickly turning those expectations sideways to produce the kind of high level art I pray Chazelle wasn’t himself mentally abused into being capable of.
I wasn’t sure if I admired Fletcher’s tactics or if I loathed his insensitivity. I wasn’t sure if I was pulling for Andrew to meet Fletcher’s expectations or to justifiably throw in the towel in favor of his own sanity. Chazelle has played us to perfection with this moral gray zone of desire and expectation butting heads between the aspirational and the emotional. J.K. Simmons is no stranger to playing diabolically manipulative educators, having gained Hollywood fame as the perversely congenial and surreptitiously fascist Vern Schillinger on the HBO’s original flagship prison-set series Oz, playing both the main villain of the series and the dutiful teacher to freshman inmate and de-facto lead, Tobias Beecher. He pulls off the same act with a comical tone as J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man trilogy of the early 00’s. Simmons is a working actor who’s bald head, hounddog drooping features and gruff demeanor has made him a work-a-holic character actor. He most likely never spends more than a couple of days filming on a television episode or a couple of weeks on a feature film. He’s in for a few seasons, usually to teach the protagonist something or to offer the audience some expository dialogue, then he’s out.
Whiplash is arguably the closest Simmons has ever come to the lead in a major production. Though Miles Teller, an intriguing up and coming actor being positioned for superstardom, is the undeniable protagonist of the story, the main focus with the most screen time, Simmons is the show stopper of the film. Most actors would have played Fletcher as an unrepentant villain or a wise guardian of youthful naïveté. Simmons imbues the volatile and manipulative instructor (early on in a moment of apparent good will, he asks Andrew for some quick personal history about what his parents did professionally and how his home life is, then constantly uses this information to belittle Andrew) with a consistently poker faced determination to get his desired results from his students, no matter the cost of his own morality or the legal boundaries of the teaching profession in polite society. Although it is likely Simmons will continue with his typical career choices and his paycheck may not get much of a bump, this is an unequivocal career best in terms of notice from critics and awards prognosticators alike. He will win Best Supporting Actor multiple times this coming Awards season and if the Academy does its thing, he will walk away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as well, to cap off the recognition of this brilliantly malevolent turn.
Miles Teller is no slouch, either. He embodies a difficult character to play for such a young actor, requiring him to give believable emotional responses from an adolescent in turmoil between hormonal chaos and the ego of someone who knows, but has never yet proven, their singularity as a talent in the world. He looks like a kid, sprinkled with acne and he looks like a real human being, prominently criss-crossed with what look to be his own real life scars along his neck and cheek. These seem to be typically covered up in his roles. Perhaps displaying himself warts and all added some authenticity to his performance, but I’d feel hard pressed to name another actor in Teller’s age range who could have gone toe to toe with Simmons in such satisfyingly authentic fashion.
One of the best films of the year, Whiplash will leave you on the edge of your seat with your heart pounding until the final note is played. Bravo!