Is the chance to achieve artistic genius worth any price? That's the question at the heart of Whiplash, a bold and bracing indie drama featuring one of the year's best performances.
It belongs to veteran character actor J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, a renowned jazz instructor at an elite music conservatory. Fletcher comes from the insane drill sergeant school of instruction, in which mental, emotional and even physical abuse are valid teaching tools. He goes out of his way to find each student's weak spot, then exploits it in an effort to push them past self-imposed limits.
Fletcher's newest project is freshman Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a drum kit prodigy. Andrew has the chops to be a great jazz drummer—maybe even a legendary one, like his hero Buddy Rich. The question is whether he has the steel to sacrifice everything for his art.
Fletcher attempts to find out through a series of cruelties so severe they nearly defy plausibility. The teacher pits his students against one another within the school's prestigious ensemble band, creating a kind of deranged social Darwinism in the name of Art. Under Fletcher's tutelage, the students bleed for their music, quite literally. The kids are too young and too scared to have any real perspective on Fletcher's methods. All they know is he's scary, he's violent and he's in charge.
The story of the prodigy and the mentor is familiar territory—could be basketball, could be chess—but writer/director Damien Chazelle is painting with much darker colors than we're used to. There's not much learning, and very little uplift. Fletcher is sadistic, and Andrew's no sweetheart, either. A couple of different scenes outside the classroom suggest that his ego is every bit as formidable as his teacher's.
Both lead performers commit to their roles—they dig into the darkness and are not afraid of being unlikeable. That raises the stakes in the later scenes, when the one-upsmanship gets truly out of hand. These guys, we realize, are capable of anything. The final showdown is so tautly staged, so unbearably tense, that I thought I was having a panic attack in the theater. No kidding—asthmatics, bring your inhalers.
Whiplash offers the complex themes of a character-driven drama, but with the suspense quotient of a superior thriller. It's one of the best films of the year. Who knew jazz could be so terrifying?