I wish I was good enough at anything as some people are at playing musicians. I mean, I’m great at being lazy and I can make a killer Risotto, but nowhere as good as the lead character in “Whiplash” is at jazz drumming. However, with skill comes a teacher, and at the center of this tale is a monstrous villain of a mentor bringing full circle an intense and often electrifying tale about the psychology of success.
Right from the get-go this movie has been perfectly advertised. The trailers immaculately gave the impression this is not some “fight for your dreams” sentimental dribble. No, this movie was going to (and does) focus on the often barbarous mental anguish that can come with trying to achieve perfection. If I may alter the fine words of Samuel L. Jackson from “1408”; “This is one evil fucking movie.”
A proper statement that is, because the film operates much like a horror movie. You can see the fear in the eyes of the students of this sadistic monster of a teacher (J.K. Simmons). They never make eye contact, and that’s how he likes it.
There is even plenty of gore. Andrew (Miles Teller in a star-making role) literally plays the skin off his fingers. Desperately trying to win the praise of his teacher and become a child prodigy he plays so hard the skin comes off his finger in chunks. He then applies a bandage, and plays on. A scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend reminded me of a reverse Mark Zuckerberg from “The Social Network”. He is obviously a genius at what he does, but he alienates everyone so he can become the best, whereas Zuckerberg did everything to be popular. I read Teller played drums as a younger lad, but I discovered that he trained hours a day to make it all seem real. Yes, even though the drumming is mostly mimed, and I’m the close-ups of hands are of an actual drummer, none of that matters. The music is electrifying and Teller lives the part so well he makes it seem 100% authentic. Acting!
But the star of the show from the moment the movie opens in Simmons as one of the best villains of the 21st century in teacher Terence Fletcher. He is a cunning predator, a man who can manipulate with a calm and cool demeanor but is a true animal. Vicious in his treatment of his students so everything can be perfect leads to racist slurs, image bashing and flat-out hucking of inanimate objects as they are playing. Simmons seems like the sweetest man on earth in other roles, but here he is the villain you can’t see enough of. It would be easy to say you wouldn’t take that kind of treatment from an audiences perspective, but I had to admit if I was in Andrew’s shoes I would work my fingers bloody too. There is something colossal about his evil presence that is undeniably enticing, and Simmons sells it all at second one. Double acting!
This battle of minds and music leads up to possibly one of the best final moments of any movie in 2014, if not the last few years. The war between two men of conflicting egos explodes when after Fletcher attempts one last time to bury his student, Andrew delivers one last fuck you to his teacher in front of everyone with an epic drum solo, which even Fletcher can’t deny is the best he’s ever seen.
In short, nothing can really prepare you for “Whiplash”. It’s as unpredictable as the musicians are talented and Fletcher is sinister. Few movies have ever captured the youth’s internal mental struggle of accomplishing their dreams, often having to see them crushed. But by the end there is something truly inspiring in his defiance that will keep the future writers writing, painters painting and actors paying for plastic surgery. At the very least watch it for Teller and Simmons, two actors from opposite generations at the top of their game and who couldn’t have been better matched. Jon Lovitz would be proud.