by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 17, 2014

Miles Teller stars in 'Whiplash'
Miles Teller stars in 'Whiplash'  (Source:Sony Classics)

Young talent needs nurturing; it also needs discipline. The recipe for success must include both, but in what proportions?

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a promising young jazz drummer. He's a student at a prestigious music school, the halls of which are haunted by a musician and instructor named Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a being aloof and nearly mystical -- at least, in the eyes of the students, who watch for so much as Fletcher's shadow to fall across nearby windows because his simple proximity could bring with it a promise of success -- perhaps even greatness.

"Whiplash" is like a fairy tale for the music crowd, its opening minutes devoted to showing us what a nebbish Andrew is: Shy, undeveloped, unable to talk to girls, spending his evenings at the movies with his milksop dad (Paul Reiser) instead of blazing at the drums at some smoky dive or escorting hot ladies around town. If there's a spark in Andrew, we're hard pressed to see it, though his presence at the school indicates that it must be there.

Enter Fletcher -- literally: As Andrew is banging away at his kit one night, Fletcher materializes in the doorway of the practice room, cool and assessing, offering neither critique nor encouragement except to ask for a demonstration of technique. When Andrew obliges, Fletcher leaves in the middle of his recital. The young man's excitement turns to devastation -- but the ashes quicken to hopeful flame once again when Fletcher subsequently plucks him out of a classroom and includes him in Fletcher's hand-picked studio band, a small ensemble of students Fletcher takes on the road with him to regional competitions. What follows is a merciless game in which Fletcher baits, switches, teases, and blindsides Andrew, catching him off guard and off balance at every juncture.

Welcome to Fletcher's schizophrenic teaching style: Believing that praise of any sort of coddling, and therefore destructive to talent and the work ethic talent relies upon to become expertise, Fletcher prefers to rage and intimidate rather than offer gentler forms of guidance. His is the drill sergeant model of instruction: Bullying, mocking, relentless. After bordering Andrew to the point of tears during Andrew's very first session with the studio band, Fletcher -- his gaunt, sharp face pushed well into Andrew's personal space -- upbraids him for the solitary tear that escapes his eye: "Do I look like a double-fuckin'-rainbow to you?" he sneers. No wonder nobody in the room dares to make eye contact with Fletcher: Like the tradesman his surname recalls, this guy is liable to rip the flesh straight off your bones.

Director Damien Chazelle also wrote the screenplay, and he seems to be having a spirited debate with himself via this movie. Does a young man need a steely, even punishing, hand from a role model? Or does the human psyche flourish when given guidance that protects the spirit, rather than setting out to toughen a guy up by attempting to crush him (and letting the guys who break in the process fall away like so many discards)?

Andrew quickly transforms from his tentative, sweet-natured self to a nasty, selfish, and gratuitously insulting reflection of Fletcher. This shocks his father, but seems to gratify his father-figure; it's telling that in one scene Fletcher threatens and drives away a worshipful kid who has dressed like him ("I can still see you, Mini-Me," Fletcher rages at the hapless imitator), but he seems to take Andrew's callous, raging outbursts as a sign of personal and artistic growth under his tutelage.

Simmons seems to revel in the sheer physicality of his role; his body, flattered by the black T-shirts he sports here, seems pumped up and chiseled. Teller, who still has some baby fat, is suitably adolescent in looks and affect to make his transformation from schlub into borderline psycho striking and effective. The two of them engage in a dance that's as electric with tension as it is thick with dread and knotted with complication. The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him, and that's what Fletcher wishes Andrew to become capable of; whatever collateral psychological, or even physical, damage might result is of lesser concern. Is this sort of drive -- furious, half-blind, unheeding -- what it takes to achieve true artistic superiority? Or are rage and conflict merely window dressing for those without sufficient natural talent?

While the casting and characterizations mesh perfectly, and the movie creates an indelible atmosphere of creative foment and psychic disrepair, the last act loses the very discipline Fletcher embodies. The camerawork (never especially inspired) lapses into laughable clichť, and the editing follows suit; the deep tension of the material's themes, summarized by the tormenting cross-pull of Andrew's two male role models, is snipped with a dissonant twang by a single shot in which Andrew's wide-eyed father, previously in the same room as Andrew and Fletcher, now half-hides behind doors open a mere crack, as though he's been banished to the land of the milquetoasts. There's a complex moral and ethical question in play here, and the film refuses to dumb things down by taking the thriller route or devolving into a comedy of dueling ineptitudes; but are we really to believe that decency and drive are mutually exclusive properties?


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.