4.5 / 5 stars
After winning just about every award available to a supporting actor, J.K. Simmons has become the eternal face of Whiplash, and rightfully so. It’s his face that strikes fear into the hearts of the film’s conservatory students, his searing visage looming like a dark, angry tornado in just about every scene he’s in. Simmons elevates the character of music teacher Terrence Fletcher into something cinematically iconic — I’m sure his angry outbursts will pop up in award montages for decades — but he had plenty to work with. And that praise goes to the creator of Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle.
Chazelle presents Fletcher as a single note of intimidation, the character exhibiting little color or emotional variety. In most dramatic circumstances, this would be seen as shallow character development, but here, it gives Simmons the limited palette he needs to turn Fletcher into a mysterious musical enigma. We can’t be sure of Fletcher’s game as the lithe Simmons blasts away, cranking up the abusive storm on his charges, leaving teary-eyed horn players and destroyed equipment in his wake.
Just about every adjective has been used (and repeated) to describe his performance: Intense. Fierce. Astounding. But don’t overlook the subtle control Simmons exercises as the film’s demon, ensuring we don’t know when he’ll strike, making Whiplash far more suspenseful than we might expect. The audience ends up shuddering when Fletcher walks in the room. We start guessing his mood and his motivations — and that’s part of the brilliance of Whiplash.
For me, that brilliance wasn’t apparent upon first viewing. I found the film’s editing misaligned, the all-important climactic concert cut more like a jazz video than a gritty battle of wills between teacher and student. Of course, I paid closer attention the 2nd time — especially with Tom Cross winning the Oscar for Achievement in Film Editing! — and I stand corrected. Sort of.
I still question some of the editing choices in that final sequence, but throughout the rest of the film, Cross’s ability to blend rhythms and make the most of Chazelle’s excellent shot choices is exceptional. The editing has an urgency and slight lack of balance, the very embodiment of Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman, the fresh-faced, insanely driven drummer who becomes the focus of Fletcher’s darkness.
Teller, a young actor who’s proven his chops in films like The Spectacular Now, recognizes the key to the film’s relationship is that Andrew is deferential to his mentor at all times. It requires Teller to give many scenes over to Simmons, which he seemingly does without reserve. When he is asked to drive a sequence, Teller steps up. In one family dinner scene, he deftly launches hateful zingers at others, the editing pounding out the staccato tempo, the script establishing that Whiplash actually has two unlikable lead characters.
Unlikable, yes. But also intriguing as hell. One moderately obsessed person is interesting, two are fascinating. Chazelle surely establishes Fletcher has the antagonist — the black-only wardrobe should clue you in there — but Andrew is a fairly anti-social prick himself. More than just becoming “one of the greats,” as he promises, is he potentially another Fletcher in the making? Whiplash doesn’t appear to dig that deep into the psychology at first. It’s that second look that seems to scratch beneath the surface, and keep scratching.