It’s impossible to talk about Whiplash without talking about J. K. Simmons’ maniacal performance as Terence Fletcher, for which he may well win an Oscar this March. That’s a scenario with which I’d be fine, because Simmons is the real deal; he’s not a lazy actor baiting the Academy with histrionics. The role is admittedly showy and flamboyant, but Simmons interprets it with tautness and intelligence. He’s so good as Fletcher, a music professor who conducts the jazz band at a prestigious New York City conservatory with a tyrannical zeal, that audience members are likely to find themselves as terrified of him as his students are.
Rarely does a movie remind us so viscerally of the special traumas that can unfold in classrooms. Most films about education are unambiguously upbeat; teachers “inspire” students with encouragement tempered by tough love. Fletcher only uses encouragement as a form of manipulation—he dangles his approval, then snatches it away—and his love is so tough it’s downright sadomasochistic. He (and the film itself) holds to the belief that great art is created out of a mixture of discipline and suffering, and he systematically inflicts both on his students, taunting, humiliating, and terrorizing them into a state of desperate abandon, at which point they either collapse from exhaustion or achieve transcendence. The idea seems to be that only once an artist has been broken will he be able to take the kinds of insane risks that might produce truly inspired work. And Fletcher’s methods, suspect though they may be, are shown to get results, even as the film reserves a canny ambiguity about the ethics of those methods. (We’re no closer to knowing how to feel about Fletcher at the end than we are at the beginning; we’ve merely been shown the depths of his brilliance, his commitment, and his glittering cruelty.)
Fletcher’s mercurial, combative relationship with Andrew (Miles Teller), a first-year student who dreams of becoming a great jazz drummer, drives the film. As the title suggests, Fletcher’s attitude toward Andrew is violent and vaguely sexual. When, after having been brutalized by Fletcher late in the film, Andrew shows a dogged resistance to submit to the teacher’s authority, they lock into a charged gaze, and Fletcher’s eyes gleam with pleasure. It becomes clear that Andrew has learned to play Fletcher’s game, and that by refusing to back down he has won Fletcher’s respect as an opponent. Fletcher, too, relishes the knowledge that Andrew is no longer a sniveling pupil but a colleague with whom he can spar as an equal. It’s the closest thing the film gives us to a triumphant graduation scene.
At moments like this one, Whiplash feels almost Jamesian in its perversity. (It would make an excellent double feature with Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, an even blacker tale about the head games teachers and students can play with each other.) There is plenty that the film gets wrong; it falls prey to lazy plot contrivances, and, if Richard Brody is to be believed, its understanding of jazz is shallow. But what the movie gets scarily right is the powerful hold that a teacher can have on a student, and the tortuous costs of education.