It’s been awhile since audiences have been given a film about a callow recruit with promise being browbeaten into a soldier considered worthy by their terrorizing but fatherly drill instructor. With a smaller military and the exhaustion born of overlapping unending wars, there isn’t much appetite these days for those kind of stories. In fact, last year’s greatest drill-instructor film had nothing to do with marching in a straight line and everything to do with keeping time.
In Damien Chazelle’s steam-heated pressure cooker Whiplash, socially maladroit student Andrew (Miles Teller) is determined to be a brilliant jazz drummer. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the demon-teacher at a New York music conservatory who Andrew thinks guards the entrance to greatness, sees potential in this student but won’t let him past without a serious flaying. From the second Andrew steps into Fletcher’s studio band, the insults and cutting remarks fly from Fletcher’s lips. The only question seems to be how long Andrew can tough it out. But since he and Fletcher have a surprising amount in common, the story then becomes more about who will outlast the other.
Although Andrew is supposed to be the story’s focus, Fletcher takes it hostage from the start. It’s a role that Simmons, with his machine-gun elocution and radar-locked focus, is almost suited for. He’s less a person than avenging muse, unable to rest until the notes are played just so. A burning-eyed and malevolent stick figure of rage, he keeps his students on the verge of suicidal hysteria in his drive for perfection. As he lays into them for not quite getting the tone right after hours of practicing the same piece (a taut string-puller of a Hank Levy number with a tricky time signature that the film takes its name from), they look like abused pets or children being lectured one time too many.
For Andrew, though, the insults matter less than the results. He might cry or erupt in rage and frustration, but it’s not for the same reasons as his classmates. Fletcher’s arsenal of demeaning verbal weaponry runs the full drill-instructor gamut, from threats of violence to homophobic jabs to your-mother-can’t-help-you-now confidence shredders. But the friendless Andrew cares only about one thing: Being the greatest jazz drummer of his time. Set against that desire, being tormented by a sadist and practicing until blood from his shredded hands spatters the drum kit, is nothing to worry about. He can barely make it through a family dinner (Paul Reiser in the thankless role as Andrew’s baffled dad) or a date with a girl (Melissa Benoist) who mistakenly perceives something sweet in him without committing a half-dozen social faux pas. On some fundamental level, Andrew agrees with Fletcher’s belief that the two most harmful words in the English are “good job.” Because nothing in life or their art will ever be good enough for either of them.
Chazelle expanded Whiplash from a short film of the same name. It shows. Although his story’s core burns bright, its embers cool faster than one would imagine. The amped-up drill-instructor relationship gives the film its juice but not necessarily in the best way. Fletcher’s cruelest lines are played for their shock-humor value; audiences eat it up as eagerly as they do the whipcrack editing and tightly measured performances. The framework Chazelle erects around that relationship can rarely hold as much interest. Teller, so often the magnetic center of attention in films like The Spectacular Now, is passive and buried here. Even in the film’s dramatic reversal of a surprise ending, the tension is still primarily about what Fletcher will do, not Andrew.
There’s a brave conceit here, in that Chazelle is willing to entertain the notion that Fletcher and Andrew are right in believing that generosity of spirit is the enemy of creative genius. In that sense, they deserve each other. But the true implications of that lonely drive, and the Faustian bargain both for artists and their audiences, is never convincingly explored. That failure leaves Whiplash like its characters: full of skill and technique and fury, but hollow at the core.