'Whiplash' drums up stinging tale of obsession, manipulation
The explosive, ingeniously constructed mentor-from-hell drama "Whiplash" gives durable character actor J.K. Simmons the meatiest and mightiest role of his career, outside of perhaps his marrow-chilling neo-Nazi prisoner in HBO's cutting-edge "Oz."
Simmons -- the bumbling dad in "Juno," the curmudgeonly newspaper editor in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy -- radiates ominous terror as Terence Fletcher, a driven music conservatory instructor who psychologically tortures his jazz band students to rip the best of their talents out of their instruments at all costs but his own.
Dressed in a black T-shirt (with prominently bulging biceps), black pants with black jacket optional, Fletcher haunts the conservatory as a musical Dementor whose frequent, foul temper tantrums and humiliating attacks can strip a musician of confidence and a career. The intimidating instructor holds the power to create or crush young talents.
Into this python pit comes unsuspecting drummer Andrew, played by up-and-coming superstar Miles Teller, a nice guy dedicated to becoming a great musician.
His high school teacher dad, a bland but kindly widower played by Paul Reiser, seems lost on how to help his son achieve his dream, as well as deal with a demanding titan like Fletcher, who psychologically terrorizes Andrew to his emotional breaking point.
"Whiplash," written and directed by Damien Chazelle, questions the high price that musicians (or anyone else) pay to achieve greatness under ruthless, ego-driven megalomaniacs.
More than that, the movie presents a more disturbing issue: the extent to which a young person will go to seek and obtain approval from a father, or in this case, a father figure, even one as destructive as Terence Fletcher.
Early on, Andrew reveals he avoids conflict. While watching TV with his father, Dad dumps M&M's into the popcorn bowl. Andrew doesn't like the candy. Instead of objecting, he says, "Don't worry. I'll eat around them."
Andrew clearly wants to please Fletcher, a man with impossibly high standards, one who constantly manipulates his musicians by setting them up with false encouragements, only to fry them with his verbal flamethrower.
Simmons and Teller make an electric pair on screen, each driven to insane lengths to prove himself in the arts.
"Whiplash" eschews irritating mentor/protégé movie clichés to become a tale of raw survival with sharp dialogue, roller-coaster plotting and Sharone Meir's fluid, widescreen cinematography constantly on the prowl, moving in and out, left and right, even supplying a dizzying set of swish-pan shots that would make an Oliver Stone movie look visually sedate.
As Nicole, "Glee" newcomer Melissa Benoist supplies the promise of romance -- and a reality check -- for Andrew. She works at a local movie theater where Andrew shyly asks her out. They hit it off.
But will Andrew be one of those budding Fletchers himself, an artist willing to sacrifice even love to chase the dream of being the best?
This is among the hard questions Chazelle poses in his fleet and nimble "Whiplash," a taut story about artistic obsession told through a young man forced to deal with the devil, yet willing to be his drummer.
"Whiplash"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Other: A Sony Classics release. Opens at the Century Centre and River East in Chicago, plus the Evanston Century 18. Expands to the suburbs on Oct. 24. Rated R for language, sexual references. 106 minutes