Greatness comes from motivation -- this is a known fact. It's the impetus behind every orphaned superhero, every woman stuffed into a refrigerator—and apparently, behind every musical genius. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a jazz drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, aspires to that level of musical greatness. But in the real world, not in comic book land, what can serve as the appropriate motivation? His band conductor Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), might just be what fits the bill.
Whiplashturns the classic inspiring mentor trope on its head, or rather, on Simmons's bald, furrowed brow. For Fletcher isn't the wise older figure speaking in platitudes that Hollywood has conditioned us to expect. He doesn't congratulate Neyman on his progresses, nor does he guide him with mildly confusing suggestions. Instead, he throws a chair at his head when he fails to play in tempo, and slaps him across the face when he can't tell by how much he was off-beat. All of this is done with a cold, calculating menace. Fletcher isn't reacting out of anger. No, he simply believes that this is the only way to inspire "greatness."
However,Whiplash, interestingly enough, doesn't take a stand on this subject. On the one hand, it depicts with unflinching and often horrific straightforwardness the effects of Fletcher's methods; Neyman practices until his calluses tear open and bleed, then simply bandages them up and continues, only to be attacked and mocked the next day for getting blood on Fletcher's drum kit, for a mild example. It's not as if this ferocity comes out of nowhere, either. Before taking Neyman on as his band's drummer, he pulls him aside to tell him that all good musicians, he believes, need a push. "Charlie Parker," he says, "only became Charlie Parker after Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head." It's a good anecdote that becomes horrifically foreshadowing minutes later, when he tears into Neyman for his inability to play exactly, perfectly, on tempo.
On the other hand, as Teller shows magnificently, Fletcher does indeed instill in him a serious drive. His bloody practices pay off. In the film's culminating scene, Neyman finally manages to get one over Fletcher's maniacal practices with an epic, unending, empowered drum solo. And at the last moment, Fletcher possibly smiles. Do his tactics work? And even if they do, are they worth the pain they exact? These are the questionsWhiplashleaves up in the air.
As a character study, however, rather than an ethical examination, Whiplash is truly incredible. Simmons shines with terrifying, simmering disdain. Every word is calculated to drive deeper, twist further, carve out your weaknesses and put them on display for all to see—he mocks his musicians' weights, sexualities, and broken homes, all in the name of motivation. And as Neyman, Teller is a gift. Everything from his eyes to his hands is expressive, whether it's through a flash of iris glassed-over with held-back tears or the quivering of fingers driven through Hell and back with anxiety and physical exertion. And the drumming, well, that's in a class of its own. Teller manages to play the film's songs with realism and intensity, thankfully; if he hadn't made a convincing drummer, the film would have fallen apart. But he does, and it doesn't.
Whiplashis, in a word, intense. It's painful, difficult to watch, and at times even shocking in the lengths to which it shows Fletcher pushing his potential protégé—and the lengths to which Neyman goes to try and please him. And its existence in the gray area between right and wrong forces us to examine the grain of truth in Fletcher's dismissal of praise when he says "There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'good job.'" Because, to be more accurate, the film asks us not is it right, but is it justified, in the name of true art, to bring out the genius lurking within?