The stress and fear related in creating art, in front of a large audience, is something this movie understands all too well. The story is simple and straightforward: Andrew (played by Miles Teller) is a talented, passionate drummer who struggles while taking lessons from an acclaimed artist named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) in a music conservatory. Fletcher is a perfectionist who challenges and abuses his students in ways that frequently go over the line. Ripping into his students both verbally and physically, he’s a bully whose behavior is received with horror and pride, as the students who earn his praise wear it like a badge of honor.
“Whiplash” is the second film by writer/director Damien Chazelle, whose debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” didn’t fully impress me. His new film, on the other hand, is so intense and filled me with such anxiety, I’ll never forget it. The two lead performances are so good, they tower over every other aspect of the story. Simmons has played a lot of lovable goofballs in the past but Fletcher is a game changer for him and how audiences view him. The character is scary and so is Simmon’s note-perfect, monumental performance. We watch the character carefully every time he’s on screen, either in dread or to find a moment when he lets his guard down. It’s arguable if we ever see Fletcher allow his true self to show, as the terror he generates is his own “art”, an ongoing variation of improvisational jazz. There hasn’t been a performance all year that has haunted me more.
Teller has been on a roll since his knockout debut playing Nicole Kidman’s unlikely friend in “Rabbit Hole.” Since then, he was outstanding in last year’s “The Spectacular Now” but has been wasting his talent in too many subpar teen movies. Here, he makes his character entirely sympathetic, even as we see how living up to Fletcher’s demanding expectations is killing him. Teller reportedly did the majority of his character’s drumming, which is a major accomplishment by itself. Seeing him hold the screen with a never-better Simmons is another feat, as his co-star’s leading performance could have blown a lesser actor off the screen.
If the movie is “about” anything, its Stockholm Syndrome. Not literally, but in the way of subtext. Specifically, how a victim can be conditioned by their captor to love and defend them, even as they’re being tortured and enslaved, mentally or physically. The things Andrew must endure to appease Fletcher (which are creative in their cruelty) break him down mentally. We root for Andrew to excel as a musician, not only for himself but also to appease the monster who torments him.
An argument can be made that the pursuit of excellence at one’s craft requires the kind of obstacles Fletcher manufactures for his students, but few would argue he’s doing it for good, rational reasons. The sadistic glee in Fletcher’s eyes is nightmare worthy and, if you’re a musician, so is this movie.
The final scene is both draining and rewarding , but so contrived and abrupt, it’s both a big finish and completely unsatisfying place to halt the narrative. Subplots involving Andrew’s dad (played by Paul Reiser) and his patient girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) aren’t intrusive but don’t flesh out Andrew’s life otside the conservatory enough. When Simmons and Teller are the focus, it’s hard to turn your eyes away, even as you’re wincing and grabbing onto your seat.