J.K. Simmons gives the performance of his life in Whiplash, sophomore director Damien Chazelle’s scorching jazz opus, fully justifying his recent win at the Golden Globes in the best supporting actor category and propelling himself, almost certainly, into pole position for the same award at next month’s Oscars.
The ever superb Simmons has made a living out of portraying gruff autocrats and falls comfortably under the broad heading marked ‘That guy from that thing.’ His terrifying band conductor, Terence Fletcher, however, is infinitely more fascinating than almost every other character he has portrayed in a career taking in a diverse slate, from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy to the Jason Reitman-directed Juno.
Fletcher, to put it bluntly, is a monster, an arrogant, vicious bully whose rein of terror over his in-house band at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory feels absolute. Wielding a volcanic temper and the ability to shatter the confidence of grown men, Fletcher’s ferocious conflict with jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) catapults Chazelle’s astonishing psychological drama towards a breathless conclusion.
In suppressing his fratty leanings, Teller plays his part with rare gusto, banishing the memories of that ropey fare (Divergent, Footloose, 21 & Over, That Awkward Moment, to name a few) in which he has passed his time thus far. He possesses a fine ability to slide between personalities, gentle and polite in one moment, pushy and abrasive in the next. It is a gift which is tested to the extreme by Chazelle, who throws his main character — a talented, but fragile, young musician — into the bear pit overseen by Simmons’s tyrant.
Eager to please, Neiman is unprepared for what awaits him: a sustained mental assault offset, initially, by Fletcher’s obviously insincere pre-session pep talk. Intensely ambitious, the new recruit is, nevertheless, floored by the velocity of his notional mentor’s anger. Within minutes Neiman is a sobbing mess as Fletcher cruelly twists personal details offered in friendship only minutes before.
‘Whiplash’ is also the title of Hank Levy’s standout composition — chosen for its maddening complexity — and this is a relevant link. Violent tension rips through Chazelle’s film as if it were a car wreck, inescapable and utterly destructive. Fletcher channels every sneering teacher you ever wanted to punch but couldn’t; Simmons basks in the glow of such a deliciously conceived villain. In one scene he drives three drumming hopefuls long into the night until they can match his tempo, unleashing upon them a torrent of world-beating verbal abuse targeting all minorities in the room: the Jews, the Irish, gay people.
This poisonous atmosphere seeps into Neiman’s pores, corroding his kindly nature, the tentative romance with a nice girl and the relationship with his father (a solid Paul Reiser), at whose table he insults a gathering of friends in an unnecessarily snide dismantlement of small-town values. It even chisels away at the tower of fear upon which Fletcher stands to survey his meek charges. When the older man dares to consider a change of lead drummer, Neiman, fuelled by a desire that sees Teller subject himself to prolonged physical torture — equal parts perspiration and blood — explodes in a fraught five-minute sequence that takes in a blown tyre, a car crash and even a brawl.
Chazelle has explored this musical milieu before with his somewhat abstract debut feature, the little-seen festival favourite Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and it is clearly a world in which he is invested. Save for the veracity of an oft-repeated anecdote about Charlie Parker’s ascent to jazz immortality, his latest appears steeped, for the uninitiated anyway, in genre lore. The prophet of this unpredictable medium is the white-faced, black-clad, gimlet-eyed Simmons, who owns the film, even with Teller’s quite brilliant input.
Fletcher is no mere cartoon, eventually displaying depths that do not quite tally with initial impressions. His tears at the death of a former protégé are sincere, so too is a friendly conversation with the small girl he encounters in a corridor. Later, as fate takes him in a new direction, he explains, with gentle clarity, that his job is not to patronise mediocrity but to spark greatness, by whatever means necessary. A wounded lion is still a lion, of course, and the show-stopping finale serves as a chilling reminder that those early eruptions simply covered darker elements.
That finale is transformative; Neiman sheds potential for greatness. In doing so, Teller strains every muscle to convey something fleeting and largely indescribable. Sweat-drenched, alive with an urgency that only great films can induce, if Whiplash cannot be classed as a thriller, it is no less thrilling.
An edited version of this article was first published here.