Friday, November 14, 2014
Last week I wrote a post about one of the inspiring teacher movies from the past. "Teachers" was pessimistic but still managed to find the sort of inspirational hope that movies like "Dead Poets Society" and "To Sir with Love" thrive on. "Whiplash" is another film about a teacher and a student that that aspire to reach heights of greatness, but it is a very different animal. Remove any thought of Mr. Holland and his music based heart affirming teaching methods. The process in this film would make old school football coaches like Vince Lombardi look like wimps.
Terrance Fletcher is a terrifying nightmare of a teacher. Like many monsters, he can appear benign and even avuncular at the moments he chooses. He talks sweet to a little girl, he passionately remembers a former student to his current students as he learns of that former students death. All of that is a mask for what he really is, a maniacal taskmaster with a standard of perfection that only he can fathom. All the members of his Jazz Band at the music conservatory that he teaches at know that monster. He never hides it from them, instead he unleashes it to bully the musicians into the exacting execution of music that he hears in his head. He justifies the process he uses as a motivational tool to try and find the true musical genius he imagines will emerge from the forge of his personality. The story of Charlie Parker is mentioned several times as a template of sorts for the kind of transformative moment he is seeking.
Andrew Neiman is a student at the school, his passion is drumming and he crosses paths with Fletcher and he becomes possessed by the desire to reach that level of genius. The question becomes, how much does a person need to endure to live up to their potential? Andrew may discover talent that he would have a hard time reaching otherwise, but it will cost him a great many things. These two characters are played by actors who are basically living out the plot of the movie. J.K Simmons and Miles Teller have had to do something extraordinary to make this movie work. Teller must have devoted countless hours to playing the drums in a manner that would hold up the story of promise that needs to be pushed beyond the extreme. His dramatic skills are amazing but when combined with the technical drum wizardry he is tasked with portraying, the performance is awesome.
The monster is played by Simmons. What kind of actor's tools allow a man to shed his own ego and become something loathsome? Sometimes the script deceives you, maybe it is all about inspiring a musician to go beyond his best. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'." This is his manifesto and he lives it. It doesn't hurt that he is a sadist of the first order who can't see the other point of view. When Andrew mentions the notion that the next Charlie Parker could be discouraged, Fletcher in his superior sounding attitude simply says "Charlie Parker would not be discouraged". This is the question begging answer of a sociopath. His cold eyes and stark dress and his manner of speaking should be a sign, like the rattle on a snakes tail, that something bad is going to happen. At the climax of the movie, that you can see anything other than the monster is a tribute to the quiet genius of this performance.
The movie is shot with a dizzying set of musical moments that build more tension than you can imagine. The close ups, fast cuts, and pacing of some of these moments, creates the type of anticipation that a great sports film or a classic thriller might develop. The dramatic moments work because the two actors are so effective. The temper tantrums that both of these men engage in could be laughable if you did not believe in the validity of their characters. Andrew has his charms but he is only slightly less horrifying than his mentor. The callous way he tosses out the one person who cares about him other than his father is an illustration of his ego as well. Two people who have little to give the world except their talent, make a fascinating duo. The story will screw with your head and you will doubt the common sense concerning human nature that you walked in with. Greatness may have a price, and in this movie, the price is your soul.