Blood on the Skins
For the third time in recent months, a film reaches theatres that sounds like it should be based on a Marvel comic book – but, like Fury and Nightcrawler before it, Whiplash is a much more serious, if rather less lucrative proposition. Damien Chazelle's film is a serious and thoughtful meditation on a number of important themes, but also a superbly gripping drama.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a music student at the best school in the US: he is determined to become a top-flight jazz drummer and is intent on getting into the conservatory's jazz big band. However, doing so requires his meeting the incredibly high standards of the teacher serving as its conductor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).
Andrew's father (Paul Reiser – much nicer than in his days working for Weyland-Yutani) advises his son to keep his options open, and Andrew indeed carries on with all the things normal lives include – most notably beginning a relationship with a nice young girl he meets at the cinema (Melissa Benoist – who, interestingly enough given the unstoppable march of comic-book entertainment, has apparently just been cast as Supergirl). But then he scrapes into Fletcher's band, and he realises his hard work has just started.
Fletcher is, essentially, a monster, or so it initially seems. He has no truck with the usual niceties like politeness or concern for others' feelings, but instead is utterly relentless, even vicious, in pursuit of getting the results he demands. Verbal, emotional, and physical abuse are all in his repertoire. Occasionally it seems as though the mask has slipped, revealing it is just a rather unorthodox methodology adopted by a passionate, sincere teacher and musician – but every time this happens, it is followed by another outrage verging on the psychopathic.
And yet Andrew's drumming is improving as a result, even if his obsessive pursuit of excellence is making him a less pleasant person too. And this is what the film is really about – is it excusable to be a horrible human being if it means you're a more effective teacher as a result? And is it better to be someone great, or someone good?
A couple of years ago I saw a movie called Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, the extraordinary tale of a man who spent six decades attempting to make the perfect confection of rice and raw fish. Whiplash addresses the same kind of issues, not least the sheer demands of reaching the top of any profession. The film doesn't skimp on showing us the literal blood, sweat, and tears Andrew has to put in, along with hours of practice. How does someone motivate himself to this kind of effort? The film suggests the baser emotions also have their part to play.
Indeed, one of Chazelle's braver decisions is to make this more than just the tale of a boy with big ambitions who ends up with a nasty teacher. Andrew himself is a less than entirely sympathetic character at times, as he puts his career ahead of the feelings of others, while Fletcher is not quite the complete ogre he appears to be. And the film is carefully ambiguous about Fletcher: is he simply a megalomaniac who gets off on humiliating his students, or is he fulfilling his remit and pushing them beyond what they expect of themselves? We are never quite given an answer to this.
What is certain is that J.K. Simmons gives an astonishing, mesmerising, terrifying performance: after a while, whenever the band begins rehearsing, you start to cringe back in your seat in anticipation of his latest detonation. Yet he's not a complete caricature, being equally convincing in the character's quieter, softer moments. Simmons' achievement is to create Fletcher as a wholly believable human being, without your ever being entirely certain what's making him tick.
Everyone else in the film is orbiting around Simmons, to some extent: he stands for an ideal, which Andrew aspires to, and which the others could potentially divert him from – not that they're not very good in these roles. Teller, looking not unlike a young John Cusack, is particularly strong in what must have been a demanding role. The climax of the film, a final battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher, is one of the most thrilling sequences I've seen at the cinema in a long time, and both actors are equally important to making it work.
As a teacher myself, I do find myself now pondering the deeper issues raised by the film. Colleagues and I do occasionally discuss the 'Teacher Mask' – the persona you adopt with students – and this is a topic which the film is obviously relevant to. But it's also about questions of motivation, and when one is justified in using the stick rather than the carrot – is it still bullying if the other person has effectively given you permission to bully them? The film, needless to say, offers no quick or easy answers.
A couple of little contrivances spoil the script, perhaps, but this is still one of the outstanding films of the year – sharply written, smartly directed, and brilliantly acted. I shall be very surprised if it doesn't win some serious awards, especially for J.K. Simmons' performances. This is a very, very good film.