A commonly accepted trope in Hollywood storytelling is the idea that teachers will push students they believe in the most the hardest. The idea is an admirable one on paper, but often leaves the mental state of the student in question unexplored.
“Whiplash” pulls no punches in delving into this trope and bringing a new meaning to the idea. Through the eyes of an aspiring drummer at the best music school in the country, the movie delivers a vigorous, frightening display of a teacher pushing his student to his physical and psychological limits.
At the center of the movie is Miles Teller as Andrew. Recently accepted into his school’s impossibly demanding studio band, he hopes to perfect his musical skills and become one of the best drummers in the world. Teller’s transformation through the story is perfectly done; starting as a plucky, ambitious student, he is slowly stripped of his sanity by his teacher, Terrence Fletcher. Teller has shown his true potential as a serious actor — this film was much better than his previous films “21 & Over” and the grueling “That Awkward Moment.” While he undoubtedly had a double performing the more demanding drumming performances, Teller clearly had training himself. Much like Andrew who “earns” his part in the band, Teller earns our respect and admiration.
As impressive and sympathetic as Teller is, J.K. Simmons is even more so as the ruthless Fletcher. Simmons is phenomenal from the first frame he’s on-screen, in the first scene of the movie. In a performance that can only be described as “electrifying,” he explodes on-screen with a raging fire as he refuses to accept anything less than absolute perfection. Fletcher’s treatment of Andrew and his other students easily falls within the bounds of physical and psychological abuse.
But what is just as impressive is how present Fletcher is off-screen. He is always at the front of Andrew’s and the audience’s mind, every slight action inevitably leading to some reaction from Fletcher. Through literal blood, sweat and tears Andrew works his fingers to the bone to earn Fletcher’s respect, and absolutely nothing that happens for a majority of the movie deters from that idea. Simmons could very well have the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the bag for this performance.
It would not seem possible with movies like “Gone Girl” and “Nightcrawler,” but “Whiplash” might actually be the most intense moviegoing experience of the year. Despite being a far cry from themes of murder or sociopaths, the action stays impossibly rigid. It is not about building suspense for some unknown thing that is going to happen but rather the fear of what is obviously going to happen. This is at least until the truly jaw-dropping finale that pits the two men in a nerve-wracking battle of wits and musical talent.
Despite an underserved romantic plot and a fairly outrageous third act, “Whiplash” truly delivers a one-of-a-kind, exhilarating experience. The soundtrack of Andrew’s drumming as well as the entire studio band throws modernity aside and pursues a classic swing time jazz motif that fits the movie remarkably. “Whiplash” deserves to be seen by those with an interest in music as well as in education — it speaks as much to the idea of perseverance as it does the teacher-student relationship.