Is genius something you’re born with? Can it be taught? Nurtured? Brought forth with practice? Pried out of you? In Whiplash, Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) plays Andrew, a gifted drummer at a fictional musical conservatory who grabs the attention of the school’s orchestra conductor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) for about five seconds. Before Andrew can even start to get his hopes up, Fletcher has left the room. Andrew’s raw talent is undeniable, but he’s not refined or precise yet. He is not good enough.
Simmons, even meaner here than he was as a neo-Nazi on HBO’s Oz, takes the role of his career and treats it as such. His Fletcher is tough and mean enough to take on An Officer and a Gentleman’s Louis Gossett Jr. and Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey with one hand behind his back (he’s also much more creative with his endless stream of outrageous insults).
Fletcher isn’t above throwing a chair at a pupil’s head if he flubs a note or slapping him in the face if he gets the tempo wrong or insulting him to the point of tears. He is, on the surface, a monster, but there’s clearly more to the man than the surface suggests. Is he just putting on an act, trying to scare his students into doing their best? Is he jealous of Andrew, or is he is just trying to push him? With his bald head, X-ray eyes and bulging biceps, Simmons is a joy to watch, giving the film its jolt of profane electricity. You would not want this guy mad at you, ever.
The students all want to please him, none more than Andrew, a jazz fan since childhood whose middle-class father (Paul Reiser) has skeptically supported his son’s dreams. Andrew is so committed to his music that he breaks up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), knowing eventually he’ll have to choose between her and his drumming, and there’s no point in waiting.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle turns the music school into a battlefield, with students sabotaging each other in order to land one of the few precious spots in the orchestra (imagine Fame as The Hunger Games but without weapons or killing). Andrew, initially naive, quickly learns to give as good as he gets, and although Fletcher keeps telling him he’s not good enough, he doesn’t kick him out of practice, either. He makes him rehearse until there’s blood on the cymbals. He makes him bleed for his talent.
Chazelle films the plentiful drumming scenes with the excitement and energy of a Spielberg set piece, and he teaches you a little something, too, about the musical form, like how to tune a snare drum as if it were a guitar (for those of all non-musician types: who knew?). Whiplash has several exciting sequences that are as thrilling as an action setpiece. The music is, of course, wonderful.
But you don’t have to like jazz to savor the increasingly contentious relationship between Andrew and his teacher, which reaches such heights that you occasionally gasp at how psychologically violent it is.
The film’s true subject, though, is innate talent — for music, writing, painting, sculpture, plumbing — and the superhuman lengths we sometimes have to go to in order to wring it out of ourselves. Human beings are remarkable creatures, and they’re resilient, too. Whiplash, which has the best closing shot of any movie thus far this year, puts you through the emotional wringer and sends you out of the theater convinced you’re capable of anything. There’s no shame in failure. Not trying, though, is the mark of a coward, something for which Whiplash has no use.
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Chris Mulkey.
Writer-director: Damien Chazelle.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 107 minutes. Considerable vulgar language. In Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura; in Broward: Paradise, Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Living Room, Paradise.