At what point does a tough teacher demanding the best from a pupil cross the line into abuse and humiliation? That question is at the heart of Whiplash (2014), the story of a young man determined to be an accomplished jazz drummer and his tyrannical and some might say deranged instructor. When does a quest to be the best mutate into a harmful obsession?
The movies are filled with many teachers and mentors who have guided countless heroes on their journeys in a variety of genres: Mickey from the Rocky movies, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, and Jamie Escalante from Stand and Deliver are just a few examples. Sure, they could be tough and give harsh truths, but they also offered wisdom and advice worth heeding, even if you didn't always agree with their methods, and usually, they mix in encouragement or have moments when you can tell they're proud of their charges. None of the mentor figures I can think of are as terrifying or as cruel as Terrance Fletcher.
Played by J.K. Simmons in an Oscar-winning performance, Fletcher is a character that I both had a strong, visceral reaction to and feel conflicted about. There are things he does and things he says to his students, the people who are there to learn from him, that I find wholly repugnant and just plain unacceptable, and I found myself wondering if he's s simply a power-mad, petty taskmaster who enjoys hurting people. But, in his quieter moments, when he has something resembling a heart-to-heart talk with our main character, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), when he explains his philosophy and why he does what he does, I find myself thinking, hmm, he's got a point; I can see some method to his madness. Then I remember how he mocks Andrew because his mother left his family when he was little and kicks him out of the band because Andrew arrives late to a competition and plays poorly because he was almost killed in a car accident. And by almost killed, I mean he's covered in blood, more than likely concussed and suffering internal injuries, and has what appears to be a broken hand (he can't even hold the drum stick).
Andrew, a 19-year-old freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York, desires more than anything else to become a great jazz drummer like Buddy Rich. He gets recruited by Fletcher into the school's studio band, where Fletcher acts more like a drill instructor than a conductor. He swears at the players, makes Andrew and others cry, throws chairs, keeps them practicing long into the night, pits the leads against alternates, and accepts no excuses or complaints. He gets in their faces, forces them to admit their weaknesses, and even slaps Andrew. He mind-rapes these students.
Because he wants to be the best, Andrew puts up with Fletcher, much to the concern of his father Jim (Paul Reiser). Andrew commits fully to jazz drumming, devoting all his free time to studying and practicing, even breaking up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), so as not have any distractions. Yet, it's never enough for Fletcher; he just keeps pushing and pushing, and eventually, there's a breaking point, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
What is the true cost of greatness? That seems to be a succinct way of the summing up the movie's theme. To achieve his greatness, Andrew essentially gives up his humanity. He finds himself isolated, alienated from friends and family, despondent, and enraged. He doesn't play the drums for fun or to express himself; he does so to achieve a pathological level of perfection. His hands bleed, and between sets, he dunks them in pitchers of ice water. The first time we see Andrew, he's sitting in alone in a room at a drum kit and looking very small framed in the door way at the end of a long, dark hallway. That's commitment, and by the end of the movie, Andrew seems poised to achieve the greatness he seeks and the begrudging respect of Fletcher, but has it been worth it?
In Fletcher's mind, the great musicians, the ones who will be remembered, are the ones who endure, the ones that never give up, the ones with the drive to achieve perfection, and he will not let anyone settle. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good Job'," he tells Andrew at one point. Pushing people beyond what's expected of them, he adds, is an "absolute necessity."
Convincing words, but they don't justify physical abuse, emotional manipulation, threats, personal insults that don't pertain to musical performance, or petty revenge; surely, there are more constructive ways to push and challenge people without destroying their spirits. In the end, Fletcher knows jazz, knows what he's talking about, and knows what he's doing, but he's also a monster, and he tries to turn Andrew into one. Whiplash isn't a horror movie nor is it even a thriller, but it's one of the most palpably tense, emotionally wringing movies I've seen in recent years.
The musical performances are edited in a frantic way, a lot of quick cuts from closeups of Andrew's tired, sweat-drenched face; Fletcher's stern, disapproving stare; the drumsticks banging against the skins; Andew's blooded hands shaking; the sheets of music; and the booming of the bass. It's disorienting and unsettling. Musical performances, especially in movies, often project a feeling of serenity, peace, fun, togetherness, and harmony, but Whiplash films them in a way that keeps the audience off balance and nervous. These performances feel so tense, you're anticipating something, or someone, is going to explode.