Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, and Paul Reiser
My rating: ★★1/2 stars
Well-made movie strains credulity.
A drum prodigy clashes with his demanding teacher at an elite music school. That simple one-sentence summary makes the film sound like a drama in the vein of The Paper Chase. Instead, Whiplash plays out more like a movie about psychological warfare than education.
Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) starts at Shaffer Conservatory with the hope that he’ll be noticed by the demanding leader of the conservatory’s prestigious and award-winning Studio Band, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). And, shortly, he is. From his first practice with the Studio Band, Andrew observes Fletcher’s abrasive and bullying manner. Once Andrew comes under Fletcher’s tutelage, Fletcher constantly berates him, trying, as he claims, to bring out Andrew’s greatness. Andrew pushes himself to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion in response to Fletcher’s prodding and manipulation.
Much has already been said about journeyman actor Simmons’s extraordinary performance. The character seems to have been written with Simmons in mind. It recalls his memorably sadistic character on HBO’s Oz, who could frighten men almost into losing control of their bowels the minute he walked in the room. He has that same terrifying presence here. His teaching techniques defy the Geneva Convention. And that’s the problem. While it makes sense for the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, as Simmons played on Oz, to be so disturbing and vicious, that behavior does not fit a music teacher. Realistically, it’s hard to believe that any person outside of a maximum security prison would behave that way. Sure, many people have bad teacher stories, but few would rise to the level of psychological torture displayed by Fletcher.
And that was my problem during the whole movie. I didn’t believe the central conflict at all; it rang utterly false. Yes, I could see that an ambitious young artist would become obsessed with success, and, yes, I could see that an elite program would be demanding. However, the problem here is one of degree. Fletcher’s behavior is so outré that it beggars belief, particularly his action at the climax of the film. I remained separated from the movie; I couldn’t invest in it because the whole time I was thinking about how false it felt.
Ultimately, the film endorses Fletcher’s techniques because they lead to greatness. In defense of himself, Fletcher makes the now-famous line, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” suggesting that only negative criticism can lead to improvement. Andrew brings up the notion that constant derision can discourage a great artist from reaching his or her potential. Fletcher responds that anyone who would get discouraged would never be a great artist. The film lets that comment go unchallenged, allowing Fletcher to win the point. And, yet, we’re never meant to question that Fletcher is a villain; his subsequent act during the climax cannot possibly be read as anything but petty sadism. Andrew’s retaliation is at once both a triumph and an act of insanity. I would credit the film for complexity of ideas if it were not for the outrageous degree of venomousness that Fletcher displays. The character is saved from being cartoonish only by power of Simmons’s performance.
This falseness at the movie’s core is a shame because the movie is well-executed. Miles Teller proves an able screen partner for Simmons. Their scenes together crackle with intensity. While there’s little room for anyone else outside the pas de deux of Andrew and Fletcher, Paul Reiser displays an interesting emotional complexity in the brief scenes he has as Andrew’s loving father. The film is beautifully shot in blacks and ambers, with lovely, hazy yellows. This color palette accents the jazz soundtrack, conjuring the magic of the urban night world. The editing perfectly highlights the rhythm of the drums on the soundtrack.
But the excellence in filmmaking technique can’t overcome the sense of falseness that the film evokes. Viewers who get caught up in the psychological intensity may overlook this lack of realism. However, I found my disbelief blocking my ability to become engaged with the film.