Whiplash's' teacher-student tension creates heart-pounding suspense

J.K. Simmons gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a terrifying music teacher

Thursday October 30, 2014 04:00 am EDT

It's appropriate that Whiplash opens in Atlanta on Halloween, as J.K. Simmons portrays quite possibly the Scariest Man in the World. As tyrannical music teacher Terence Fletcher, he frightens his cowed students with blistering tirades. But Simmons positively terrifies when he goes silent, leveling his cobra gaze on a potential victim and radiating barely contained malevolence.

Much of Whiplash takes place in rehearsal rooms and concert halls, but it's every bit as suspenseful as films set in haunted houses or abandoned summer camps. Whiplash offers tours de force of acting, directing, and jazz solos, and after it ends and your adrenaline levels return to normal, you can discuss its knotty implications for creativity and motivation.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a freshman drummer at a New York school for the performing arts inspired by Juilliard. Andrew strives to be another Buddy Rich, but you don't have to know jazz lingo like "double-time swing" to find his story completely engrossing. Andrew, like most of the student body, sees Fletcher as an almost mythic figure in black, so the young man is thrilled when he gets a shot at the professor's studio band, the elite group that represents the school in high-profile competitions.

The audience quickly realizes that, from Fletcher's point of view, he's trying to get the absolute best from his students and push them beyond their own expectations. His goal to create the next Charlie Parker justifies monstrous behavior that regularly brings them to tears, including verbal abuse and nasty little mind games. When he casually asks personal questions, or smiles, you want to yell at the screen like it's a slasher movie: "Don't let your guard down! What if it's a trick?"

Tellingly, we see no espirit de corps among Andrew's fellow musicians, just a held-breath atmosphere of cutthroat competition. But that might simply reflect Andrew's priorities. Andrew proves so intent on achieving greatness that he craves Fletcher's tutelage in a dynamic that borders on Stockholm syndrome. Andrew tries dating another college student (Melissa Benoist), but quickly wonders whether she'll distract from his artistic ambitions. Why go out with a girl when you can practice drumming until your hands bleed? Teller holds his own against Simmons' hurricane performance, conveying some of the focus and vulnerability of the young Dustin Hoffman.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle won major awards at Sundance and shows a remarkable command of pace and tone, able to turn a rendition of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol's "Caravan" into a pitched power struggle. Intriguingly, the film neither wholly justifies Fletcher's tactics nor apologizes for him, but gives plenty of evidence for both interpretations. He's a petty sadist who leaves lasting scars, but in at least one case he gets results. He sharply contrasts with Paul Reiser's turn as Andrew's mild-mannered father, who loves his son too much to push him harshly.

Whiplash brings up debate comparable to the recent cultural discussion on "Tiger Mom" parenting, which suggested that demanding perfection and withholding approval could bring high achievement, but also have harmful side effects on young personalities. In the pursuit of excellence, is it worth beating a developing artist like a drum? On this matter, Whiplash holds silent.

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