There’s a scene, consisting of two shots, near the beginning of Whiplash that cuts to the heart of the entire story. Andrew (Miles Teller) sits on the floor, listening to a jazz drummer he idolizes, Buddy Rich. Cut to Andrew’s point of view with a shot of his own drum kit. The kit sits there, looming over Andrew as the album plays. Cut back to Andrew, staring at his drums. The look on Andrew’s face is immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever undertaken a creative endeavor: frozen by intimidation. The intimidation of wanting to be great at something, but fearing you just don’t have what it takes.
This is the story of a person who is willing to do whatever it takes to be a great jazz drummer and what happens when he comes face to face with someone who recognizes that drive, and because of his position, exploits it for his own sick, sadistic pleasure. That description makes the movie sound much simpler than it really is. Watching Whiplash is a very complex, and disturbing experience.
On one level, it’s every uplifting teacher/student movie ever made turned upside down. Think Dead Poets Society if Robin Williams played John Keating as a sociopath, who subjected his charges to physical, verbal, and emotional abuse because that was the only way to cut the wheat from the chaff. That’s what you have in Terence Fletcher, a demonic jazz instructor played by virtuoso character actor J.K. Simmons.
The comparisons between the Fletcher character -- and the actor’s performances -- to the Drill Instructor from Hell in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket are, perhaps, inevitable. But there is something much darker going on in Whiplash. Without spoiling anything, I will say that both films deal with the extreme consequences of this kind of behavior. You never get the sense that R. Lee Ermey’s Gny. Sgt. Hartman actually enjoys what he’s doing to his recruits in Jacket, at least I never did. Simmons’ Fletcher, on the other hand, clearly does. The mind games he plays on his students in order to first build them up, just to rip the rug right out from under them, are purely in the domain of the sociopath.
Fletcher tells Andrew the story of jazz great Charlie Parker. How, as a teenager, Parker haughtily tried to show off in front of some jazz bigwigs, and when he flubbed his notes, got a cymbal thrown at his head for his troubles. The story, as recounted here, and elsewhere on the web, has the cymbal thrown either at Parker’s feet, or to the ground, as more a broad sign of disrespect, than as a physical attack. And that’s the point.
Fletcher has fetishized the event in his own head so much that the only way to test a musician for greatness is to hurl abuse and invective, to see if he can take it in pursuit of being the best. It’s a mentality akin to Christians who focus solely on the torture and suffering of Jesus just before and during the crucifixion, to the exclusion of any other message. Mel Gibson’s passion for The Passion comes to mind. Some critics have taken Whiplash to task for getting jazz music, as well as what makes genius tick, all wrong.
Those critics have missed the point.
Psychology is what’s important here; the jazz lessons could be anything. The themes of power and, more specifically, the abuse of power by someone who is demonstrably mentally disturbed are the keys to unlocking the movie’s true purpose. Those internal machinations are executed with deadly seriousness and Simmons is absolutely mesmerizing as Fletcher. To my mind, he should be a lock to win the best supporting actor Oscar for which he’s been nominated.
Director Damien Chazelle, a relative newcomer, shows superb skill in creating an atmosphere of tension throughout the film. Moments like the camera quickly cutting to other members of the ensemble, and their silent expressions of terror just before one of Fletcher’s outbursts go a long way. The manic feeling he creates with camera placement and cutting during a frenzied car ride works especially well. Much of my viewing experience included a persistent feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. At almost every moment, I was waiting for Fletcher to explode in a fit of rage. The overwhelming power of Simmons’ performance is not to be denied.
So, if Whiplash’s main character, Andrew, is willing to take all that abuse in the pursuit of greatness, does he get anything out of Fletcher’s lessons beyond becoming a better musician?
The last sequence of the movie really challenges how you feel about both of the main characters. There is a single shot of Andrew’s father (played, in a welcome return to the screen, by Paul Reiser) in this sequence that acts as a Rorschach test for every audience member. Is he proud of his son? Or does he see him as a monster? The answer depends on your views of the cost of greatness, and how much of your own soul you’re willing to give up attaining it.