What does it take to be "one of the greats"? And would the cost be worth the reward? These are the questions at the dark heart of Whiplash, an indie Amadeus set in a New York City music conservatory.
Funny word, that: "conservatory." To conserve is to prevent injury, prevent waste. But fearsome instructor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) makes it his mission to inflict punishment on students, to do emotional and physical injury to them as necessary to achieve greatness as a musician and, by extension, to achieve Fletcher's own legacy as the purveyor of greatness. If the waste of a student's time, money, or even life should occur, well, it's all a part of the cost of doing business, the business of art.
It's Fletcher's world, and now Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is living in it. One of the Shaffer Conservatory of Music's most brilliant students, Andrew quickly learns to want we can't have from Fletcher: his respect. Like a spider with a fly in his sights, Fletcher lays psychological traps for Andrew as he draws the student into the complex web that is the competitive studio band, where students live in constant competition to attain and maintain "first chair."
Not since R. Lee Ermey's Gny. Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket has there been a more brutal drill sergeant than Fletcher, whose oft-repeated favorite story recounts the time Charlie Parker "became" Charlie Parker in the moment bandleader Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Parker's head. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job,'" Fletcher maintains, siding with those who feel students are too coddled in a world of participation awards and "My Child Is an Honor Student" bumper stickers.
Andrew proves receptive to this point of view, though he is constantly surprised by how much further he can be pushed. He begins as a devoted player and an intent studier of Buddy Rich recordings, but these practices, under Fletcher, become obsessions that scarily drive out all human connections except that with the leader of his musical cult: seduced and abused by his new spiritual father, Fletcher comes more deeply to resent his own father (Paul Reiser) for his lack of "success," and determines that new girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) isn't worth the time and head space she takes up.
The theater-of-cruelty narrative culminates in a spectacular performance climax begging the infamous musical question "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?", a wildly intense capper to the film's series of increasingly taut confrontations (including a family-and-friends dinner that Andrew blows up in his frustration over the competitive cultural definitions of success). Writer-director Chazelle establishes himself as an intelligent new voice in film with this bracing draft of cold air in what's thus far been a largely airless year at the movies.
Striking photography and sharp editing are important to the film's success, but it's the career-best performances by Simmons and Teller (both better known for comic performances) that make Whiplash unforgettable. Simmons cuts a figure of smug sadism, unquestionable ferocity, and disturbing melancholy (and cuts a literal figure in his impressively physical performance), while Teller's progression to dead-eye focus, dripping blood on the drumhead in the process, shows a commitment equal to that of his character (and both actors get to show off their impressive musical ability). In these hands, and by any definition, Whiplash is a success.