JK Simmons, best remembered for playing impatient Daily Bugle publisher J Jonah Jameson who regularly underpaid Peter Parker for coveted photos of the mysterious web-slinger in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movies, takes bullying to a whole new level in Whiplash. Bald as a baby’s bottom and clad fully in black, he plays Terence Fletcher, a brutal maestro at a top New York music conservatory, who literally drives his students to blood and tears in his search for artistic excellence.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a talented, ambitious young drummer at the school, who catches the eye of Fletcher and is invited to join his elite jazz band. For Andrew, who seems to prefer the company of his drums to fellow humans, this is both a dream and a nightmare. With Fletcher breathing down his neck, hurling abuse, sarcasm, racist slurs, homophobic taunts, and even physical objects in his face, Andrew struggles to meet his teacher’s impossible standards of perfection. “There are no words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job,’” Fletcher barks at one point.
I know what you’re thinking – that you’ve seen this kind of relationship before. Fletcher is a hardened version of Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid; the teacher who must be tough on his students, cruel even, while pushing them to give their best. No, you’ve got it wrong. Writer-director Damien Chazelle puts an interesting spin on your typical student-mentor relationship, turning in a riveting psychological thriller that’ll stay with you for days.
Unafraid to explore the dark side of artistic obsession, Simmons never plays the role for likeability. Peel away the ugly layers, and there is more unpleasantness to be found. It’s a tour de force performance, one that’s hard to tear your eyes away from. Teller too is in excellent form. He manages to make Andrew both deeply sympathetic and intensely complex, as characterized in a chilling scene in which he breaks up with his girlfriend because he’s convinced she’ll be a distraction to his career.
Shot and edited at a rapid-fire pace, the camera zooming in on Andrew’s drum-kit as his fingers bleed to achieve Fletcher’s desired tempo, the film never lets up or loosens its grip on your attention. Right upto the very end, Chazelle eschews conventional narratives, leaving us with an unexpected and shocking final showdown that’s worthy of a standing ovation.
I’m going with four out of five for Whilpash. It’s tense, consistently compelling, and a dazzlingly original piece of work that you cannot miss.