I really only need five words to review Whiplash:
J. K. Simmons kicks ass.
He so seriously does. The deep-voiced character actor, beloved by fans of Allstate Insurance, Spider-Man, Jason Reitman, and the Coen Brothers alike, has been memorable so many times in the past that it’s easy to take him for granted. However, with Whiplash, he proves himself to be not just a distinctive screen presence but to be a brilliant actor as well. There’s a lot of good things about Whiplash but, ultimately, it’s Simmons who makes the film something more than just another promising indie film.
Simmons plays Terrence Fletcher, the legendary and feared conductor of the Schaffer Conservatory jazz band. (We’re told that Shaffer Conservatory is the best music school in the country. Of course, in a real life, the best music school in the country is located at University of North Texas, where I studied Art History but still enjoyed occasionally listening to the One O’Clock Lab Band.) As played by Simmons, Fletcher is both a genius and a sadist. When he talks about music, he does so with a passion that makes it impossible not share his love for all that jazz. When he conducts his band, he does so with a cruelty that makes you question if the music is worth the cost of the emotional stability of the people playing it. When he hears that someone is out of tune, he responds by reducing a musician to tears. When he says, “Not my tempo,” it’s both a critique and a threat. The fact that he’s creative and quick-witted with his insults does nothing to lessen the pain that they cause.
Fletcher’s latest protegé/victim is a talented 19 year-old drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller). Andrew shares Fletcher’s love for jazz but nothing can prepare him for the lengths that Fletcher will go to manipulate him. Whether it means insulting Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) or casually threatening to give Andrew’s spot away to another drummer, Fletcher’s nonstop and often viscous criticism makes Andrew a better drummer but also threatens to destroy his sanity.
Director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle understands that those of us in the audience have seen literally hundreds of films about intense teachers and the students that they teach. Chazelle cleverly manipulates all of our expectations. The minute that we expect Fletcher to say something encouraging or to reveal himself to actually be a compassionate mentor, Simmons instead barks out another insult or regards Andrew with a withering glare. And, as we wait for Andrew to stand up to Fletcher or prove his mentor wrong, we are instead forced to admit that Fletcher’s approach does seem to be working.
When, towards the middle of the film, Andrew crashes his car while rushing to a jazz competition and then attempts to play the drums with both blood on his suit and a broken hand, you can’t help but both admire his determination and fear where that determination is going to take him.
As I said at the beginning of this review, there’s a lot of good things about Whiplash. As you might expect for a film about jazz, it has a great soundtrack. Miles Teller gives a great lead performance, one that may be overshadowed by J.K. Simmons but which — along with his work in The Spectacular Now — indicates that Teller is an actor to watch. (We’ll just forget the fact that he was also in Project X.) Some of the film’s best moments don’t even involve J.K. Simmons, instead they’re just scenes of Teller obsessively drumming until his hands are bloody.
But, ultimately, it is J.K. Simmons who truly elevates this film. Simmons makes Fletcher into a truly fascinating villain, one who constantly leaves you guessing. By the end of the film, you may not like Fletcher but you definitely can not get him out of your head.
Ultimately, the success of Whiplash stands as a tribute to the talent of J.K. Simmons.