Whiplash – 2014
Whiplash is a film about a monster and his victim, or maybe that’s the other way around. I hated watching it. But in this case, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The filmmakers were able to do something that a good movie is supposed to do. It made me feel something. True, the emotions I felt were anger, incredulity, and maybe even a little disgust, but I get the feeling that I was supposed to feel those things. When looked at through that lens, the film did its job, and it did it well.
The movie’s main protagonist was Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller. He is a nineteen-year-old drumming student, playing at a prestigious music conservatory in New York. Of course, he is a drumming prodigy, and has the ambition to become one of the greats, on par with the likes of Buddy Rich. He is chosen to play with the school’s studio band by their director, Terrance Fletcher, played by J. K. Simmons, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his intense performance. Other supporting actors included Paul Reiser playing Andrew’s dad, and Melissa Benoist playing his failed relationship, Nicole. Though they played their parts well, their plot-lines were almost negligible compared to the main story.
The problem is that Fletcher believes two things. First, that greatness is only achieved by devoting every ounce of your soul to your craft. Hmmm… Black Swan? Anyway, I might not agree with that, but that, in itself, isn’t so bad. The second thing he believes is that, as a teacher, the only way to push your students to true greatness is to hurl as much physical, mental, and emotional abuse on them as possible, until their spirit is broken and they practice themselves to death. Wrong!
This is why I had such a difficult time watching this movie. It is also why the movie was so effective in evoking emotion. It is not easy to see such criminally abhorrent behavior, and not be affected. The character of Fletcher shouted, cursed, belittled, and berated his students. He called them horrible names, used racial slurs, and even resorted to hitting them in front of other students. He brought students to tears on a regular basis. In any normal school, this kind of behavior from a faculty member would never be tolerated. But it was all played off as a, “Well, he’s the best at what he does because he gets such great results.” Wrong! I don’t care how good you are, you don’t treat anyone that way for any reason. But, I get it. This isn’t a movie about a nice guy. If it were, it would be a boring movie.
The abusive relationship that developed between Neiman and Fletcher was incredibly intense. It was a wonder that Neiman put up with it, except that, in his own way, he was just as crazy as Fletcher. His drive to be the best was so overwhelming that he actually bought into the emotional abuse. He began to believe that if he practiced so hard that his fingers bled, he would be able to please Fletcher and be the greatest drummer ever. He pushed himself so hard that even when he was nearly killed in a car accident on the way to a jazz band competition, he got up, ran to the competition, injured and bleeding all over, and tried to play the drums. Of course, he makes a mess of everything, and Fletcher stops the performance to fire him. Neiman loses control of his frayed emotions and attacks Fletcher, for which he is expelled from the music school.
Alright, I have to pause here. This part was a bit unrealistic. First, if your drummer walks in covered with blood and has an open head wound, you don’t let him play. You call an ambulance. Second, part of being in an ensemble is supporting the group. Neiman’s ambition was so great that he forgot about that truth and tried to make it all about himself. But maybe the point of that was to show just how mentally unstable Fletcher’s abuse had made him. Third, walking away from the scene of an accident is a crime. He just left his smashed and overturned rental car in the middle of the street and ran to the performance. Nope.
But then the movie almost had me on board when we learn that a former student of Fletcher’s had committed suicide because of the years of abuse he had suffered under his tutelage. A lawyer talks to Neiman and gets him to testify against the horrible man, who is subsequently fired from the prestigious conservatory. I thought, “Good. A man like that doesn’t deserve to be teaching anyone.” But then the movie dropped the ball and vindicated him and his abusive ways.
In the end, Fletcher cons Neiman into playing with him in a high-profile JVC Jazz Festival performance. Knowing that it had been Neiman’s testimony which had gotten him fired, he opens the set with a piece Neiman doesn’t know. Neiman tries to play along but embarrasses himself. But instead of walking away in defeat, he begins playing one of the hardest pieces he learned as Fletcher’s pupil, and he does it so well, he impresses Fletcher. The film ends as the two share a smile, indicating that all the terrible and horrific abuse, the mental torture, and emotional suffering was worth it because it pushed Neiman to true greatness. I’m sorry, but that left me with the wrong message, and while that might have been director, Damien Chazelle’s goal, it didn’t make the movie particularly enjoyable to watch.