Every Oscar season, there is always a best picture nominee that can be cringe-inducingly described as “inspirational”, about how one person overcame all the odds stacked against them to find success. This year, it’s refreshing that the take on the “inspirational” movie that is getting all the awards attention is one of the more intense, fucked up movies conceivable – not to mention one of the very best. In a nutshell, Whiplash is Dead Poet’s Society for sociopaths.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller, channelling the social awkwardness of Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network) is an aspiring jazz drummer, who attends the most prestigious music school in the U.S: the Shaffer Conservatory in New York. Neiman is something of a recluse; he has no friends, instead focusing on toiling away the hours practising his drumming and when he DOES socialise, it’s exclusively with his dad. He clearly has no idea how to react towards other people, avoiding conversation at all costs and even breaking up with a girlfriend as she’s getting in the way of him becoming the best. His obsession with becoming the great American jazz drummer is further fuelled by a chance meeting with one of the school’s leading conductors, Terrence Fletcher (J.K Simmons), who surprisingly wants to recruit him as part of his jazz orchestra.
Fletcher’s idea of motivating his students to get them to deliver their best performances is to push them to their mental limits through intense bullying and physical violence. Instead of making Fletcher into an outright villain, Whiplash instead dares us to empathise with him; he repeatedly tells an anecdote about how the young Charlie Parker, the great US jazz drummer, was nearly decapitated from having a cymbal thrown at him, simply so he would become a better drummer. All Fletcher wants to do is to make his students go to their furthest reaches to make them achieve things they didn’t know they were capable of – and for all that’s scary about Terrence Fletcher, the scariest thing by far is the fact he might have some semblance of a point.
To me, the most surprising thing about Whiplash is how much I enjoyed a movie with such a broadly conservative message. The common argument is that talent is something that develops and that the more you practice, the better you become; the central argument with Whiplash is that you only achieve that potential under exceptional circumstances. Fletcher is undoubtedly a terrifying creation, yet even in moments where it is hard to find him sympathetic, such as a second-act reveal about a former student of his, his obliviousness to the trauma he’s creating proves that he’s not a real villain. In the rare moments of calm, when he isn’t screaming at his students that they are not playing at his tempo, he argues passionately in favour of his teaching technique in a way that’s well-articulated and reasonable.
He may prey on the worst elements of each of his students lives (Neiman’s absent mother is repeatedly used as a bullying tool), yet off the stage and away from the rehearsal room he seems like a well-adjusted adult. This is what horrified me the most. The rehearsal scenes are intense, but proving that this man isn’t a monster is scarier. His argument is that we can all achieve great things when pushed to breaking point – and his life outside the rehearsal room suggests that any well-adjusted human being is equally capable of creating the emotional torment that he so frequently does. There is nothing scarier than a scene in which he tells his friend’s young daughter that she can happily come play for his band one day, seconds before meeting up with his band and delivering another intense tirade against them.
J.K Simmons is a character actor with 147 credits (and counting!) to his name, but is probably best known to mainstream audiences as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies. This means that audiences best accept him as providing comic relief – yet it still seems somewhat offensive to say that an actor as prominent as him is a “revelation” in the role. Like many character actors, he has an instantly recognisable face- this is one of the roles where you finally put the face to a name. Miles Teller too, is something of a revelation. Previously in films good (the underrated The Spectacular Now) and god-awful (Project X, 21 & Over) he’s cornered the market in asshole jock-types. Here, he plays an asshole of a completely different kind, one that’s actually driven by something. If it wasn’t for the fact that J.K Simmons casts such a huge shadow over every other performance onscreen, his performance would likely be equally embraced by critics. In many ways, his is the more difficult role; Teller has to make Neiman sympathetic to the audience as he is our “way in” to the narrative, the one we are supposed to root for when faced against crushing adversity. The masterstroke of director Damien Chazelle’s screenplay is that it never bothers making anybody sympathetic; these are all people driven by the blind desire to be the best, with no regard as to how their actions are affecting everybody else around them.
The reason I like Whiplash so much is that it does two things I love. Firstly, it deconstructs what we expect from a film of this calibre, taking the tropes of inspirational movies and subverting them until you feel nothing but crushing pessimism. Secondly, it falls into my favourite sub-genre, “the cult of personality” movie, where a character becomes so obsessed with somebody else’s way of life that they end up destroying their own trying to replicate it. But most importantly, Whiplash is exceptional because it is entertaining in a way so few movies are, pushing you to your furthest limits alongside the characters while finding a darkly comic joy buried within the intensity.