I adore J.K. Simmons. He is an incredible character actor, turning in outstanding and memorable performances in Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Burn After Reading and countless TV shows including Oz. I am very happy that he just won an Oscar—that is, I am happy for him, because that is the only reason I decided to see Whiplash. Unfortunately, I am now in need of emergency brain surgery to extricate all memory of this film from my head. But before I am inducted under general anesthesia and the surgeon commences drilling into my cranium, allow me to offer a few thoughts.
Whiplash centers on the relationship between a drum student (played by Miles Teller) and his instructor (Simmons) at an elite New York conservatory. As Terence Fletcher, Simmons embodies every spittle-flecked drill sergeant, volatile sports coach and tough-love father you’ve ever seen in movies. This is a common archetype who initially appears unreasonable and mean, but is eventually revealed to be acting out of love, compassion and hard-won wisdom for the benefit of others, however misguided his tactics (see e.g. Gran Torino, The Judge, etc.) Not so with Fletcher. There is no self-reflection, no come-to-Jeezus moment, nothing remotely different about him from start to finish. Consequently, there is just no way to swallow that Fletcher’s is ultimately a worthy pursuit, much less that there is any basis for his actions beyond sheer, sadistic pleasure. By the film’s end, we are certain that he is not some misguided asshole with a heart of gold: no, he is an unrepentant asshole who revels in doing harm for its own sake and the power rush it delivers.
Fletcher’s entire dynamic with Andrew is a classic, textbook cycle of abuse: the predator is a master pretender, cleverly wielding carrots and sticks to get his target to offer up concessions and information guaranteed to be weaponized later on. Fletcher’s absurdly grandiose view of his own worth—as a teacher and as a human being—is never challenged by the filmmakers. In the end it is only validated, and we have to step outside the film and reject its core narrative to even question whether Fletcher is responsible in any way for Andrew’s drive to excel. In fact, we virtually never see Fletcher actually teach Andrew anything about music; he serves up only humiliation, manipulation, spite, vengeance and violence. It is a testament to Simmons as an actor that Fletcher is no 2-dimensional cartoon villain, either. He plays it way over the top to be sure, but you recognize him. You have met him—or someone very much like him—and if you survived the encounter, it is because you eventually figured out how to escape him.
Andrew hardly comes off any better, if you can believe it: he goes from being a shallow, arrogant asshole to being…a shallow, arrogant asshole more prone to the kind of explosive outbursts and cold cruelty that Fletcher so relishes. NEWSFLASH: no one wants to work with flaming assholes, no matter how talented they may be. As it turns out, being a huge douche is actually an impediment in an art form that is at its very essence collaborative.
So. Both actors turn in monster performances playing monsters. And I get it: it’s every actor’s dream to play roles like these—but in the service of what? There is absolutely nothing inspiring, redeeming or even remotely likeable about either of these characters, or their story arcs. If Whiplash plays nothing like a cautionary tale or heroic triumph, then what the fuck is it? Well, the ultimate message of the film is that behind every extraordinary talent lies a miserable, sadistic narcissist, without whose cruel ministrations a gifted artist will never achieve greatness. I reject that, entirely. Artistic “success,” however you wish to define it, requires an innate creative spark, aptitude, ambition and, like pretty much any other area of endeavor, a fair amount of luck. Of course privilege plays a role too, particularly with respect to opportunities and encouragement. And yes, it requires discipline, but not of the sort externally imposed by terror, violence and psychological abuse. Above all else, an artist is driven to make art. That is why the Terence Fletchers of the world are superfluous at best—and far more often than not, harmful in the extreme.
Wait a minute…now that I think of it, this movie would totally work a thousand times better as…gay BDSM porn!
tl;dr: NEEDZ MOAR COCKZ.