Like Foxcatcher, Whiplash is also a film about power relationships between men, particularly older men and younger men. But there, the comparison ends. Where Foxcatcher is measured, graceful, distanced, studied, Whiplash is a tightly wound spring of a film. It has an intensity not matched in the most elaborate action film, and yet it’s superficially about playing the drums. It features one of the great performances in modern cinema, by one of the great character actors, JK Simmons, as well as a crucial, surprisingly unmannered and very effective turn by Paul Reiser.
But most of all it features drumming, lots of drumming. That intense, incredibly technical big-band Jazz drumming, where the Gods include Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Art Blakey and Max Roach and the disciples include Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. If we replace drumming with Kung Fu (although in terms of genre, this drumming is Kung Fu… woah…), and JK Simmons with Master Pei Mei, you can get a sense of the arc of this film. It’s essentially one long training montage, pared down to its dramatic essence.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a drumming student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York. As an underclassmen, his highest ambition is to get into the school’s top band, the one that is sent to all sorts of music competitions and represents the absolute highest calibre of technique. The conductor of that band, and one of the instructors at the school is Terence Fletcher, played by JK Simmons. Fletcher hears Neiman practicing one night, is intrigued, and invites him to try out for his band. The rest of the film consists of Neiman’s quest to stay in the band and rise to Fletcher’s increasingly sadistic and perverse challenges.
That’s about it for plot. Oh, we spend some time seeing Neiman ask out a nice girl he likes, begin to date her and then cast her aside when he convinces himself he needs to cut everything but drums out of his life. But this turns out to be a long stretch of cliche, building up to the admittedly effective moment when Neiman attempts to win her back, and learns she’s moved on. Much more interesting as a secondary plot is Neiman’s relationship with his father, played by a distinctly middle-aged Paul Reiser. The senior Neiman, a widower, has a great relationship with his son. They’re close to each other, see movies together regularly. He’s an English teacher/writer of middling ambition and success, but he’s proud of his son’s music and where he’s been able to go with it. He’s quietly supportive, but lacks any sort of drive or edge. It’s a wonderful, sympathetic performance from Reiser, and gives the film a rich third dimension.
But the film really boils down to a series of scenes and episodes, non-violent but brutal, between Fletcher and Neiman. JK Simmons is a familiar face to moviegoers, having been in dozens of films and TV shows over the years, and always good. I particularly remember him from Juno, playing slightly against type as a very sympathetic, funny and warm father figure. Whiplash may open the door to a new chapter of his career in leading roles, given how he owns every moment he’s on screen… and probably most of the moments he isn’t. With a shaven head, superhero-quality physique, dressed in a tight black T-shirt, he radiates masculine authority. Just standing there, “coiled spring” doesn’t suffice as a metaphor. More like a motorcycle shock absorber. He looks. He yells, and insults. He throws things. But he doesn’t beat on his students, or seek to destroy their lives. (For the most part.) Another thing he doesn’t do, until very late in the film and only in a brief long shot, is play music. So, we take all his authority “on faith”. Simmons is such a superb actor, it’s only after the film that most will realize they’ve never seen him play. Everything about the way he portrays that character implicitly sells his abilities and his fame.
We don’t actually learn anything about Fletcher during the course of the film, except some very random tidbits, gleaned from the decor in his office or a deceptively human scene near the end. (The honesty of which certain later scenes call into question.) This is a brilliant choice by writer-director Damien Chazelle. The less we know about that character, the more threatening he becomes. I’ll go as far as to say he’s one of the great villains of the cinema, something great characters are often capable of giving us.
There’s no getting around the emotion this movie stirs, especially as the audience is drawn further into the conflict between these two men. It’s almost as insult to education as a concept to refer to Fletcher as a “teacher”. He does not teach, as I understand the definition. Instead, he brutalizes, abuses, insults and shames young people until they’re able to channel their hatred of him and fury with him into their playing. Or at least, so goes the theory. Fletcher believes in that theory, whole heartedly, and uses it to justify abuse that, as we learn, has already led one former pupil to suicide, his sense of self esteem shattered. No doubt Fletcher considers that some sort of victory. By the final sequence of the film, the details of which I won’t reveal, I was literally a moment a way from getting up and yelling at the movie screen with hateful invective at JK Simmons. And of course, in the next moment I was overcome with admiration for the ability of Simmons, and Chazelle, to bring me to such an emotional place.
Ultimately the title refers to Fletcher’s style of mentorship. He whips where he could teach, but that’s his style. And he justifies it by claiming that it pushes students to achieve what they couldn’t otherwise achieve. The obvious comparison being made is, in fact, Mr. Neimann, Andrew’s father, whose gentle, supportive approach to life has only brought him to a modest level of success. Andrew spends the course of the film pulled between the two poles of the carrot versus the stick, and wondering which of these two older men he truly admires.
Whiplash leaves the future of its characters slightly ambivalent, once it’s framed the drama as a choice of a young man between two mentors. That works just fine, as there’s meat enough in the scenes leading up to the powerful ending to make it a compelling, open question with several justifiable outcomes. To do that, and still deliver a dramatically satisfying narrative film experience, is quite a trick. The real drummer here is Chazelle, and the final sequence, featuring an uninterrupted, epic drum solo, is as riveting, dynamic and satisfying as anything ever committed to film.