It’s no accident that such films are released in October. That’s when audiences are most in the mood to be thrilled and chilled, perhaps even killed, at the movies.
Most Octobers come and go without adding a truly classic villain to the repertoire — a Jason, a Ghost Face, a Freddy Kreuger. Yet this October, there is a new big screen baddie coming to a theater near you. A twisted psychopath who preys on guileless teenagers, who strikes fear into the hearts of all who invoke his name. You see him coming, you run the other way; but usually, by the time he’s set his sights on you, it’s already too late. He’s a monster.
Michael Myers and Leatherface, meet your new contemporary: Terence Fletcher.
I may be exaggerating a little, but then again, so is Whiplash. Terence Fletcher bursts into rooms with the same fury Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone might have in the eighties. It’s a wonder the doors don’t fly off the hinges. He wears an iconic porkpie hat that might as well be a hockey mask, dresses in all black almost always. He leaves his students bleeding on multiple occasions. He is not to be fucked with. Whiplash is an entry in the popular “inspirational teacher” subgenre, but only in the loosest sense. It’s like if Robin Williams’ John Keating had showed up to that first class in Dead Poets Society with an Uzi.Make no mistake: Terence Fletcher is a villain. Maybe not a murderous one (though he may be tacitly involved in one former student’s death, as we come to find out). He’s like the male version of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada — but instead of clicks of the tongue and withering looks, Fletcher really is a physically terrifying individual who is capable of doling out bodily harm, and he’s awfully fond of the word “faggot” (and so many other choice insults). In this case, the ingenue is not Anne Hathaway but rather Miles Teller, who also comes to develop a complicated love-hate (or respect-hate, at least) relationship with his tormentor-turned-mentor. The Devil Wears Porkpie, maybe? Fletcher may come at his students with the best of intentions, but his methods are highly suspect and possibly dangerous. I don’t know that I’d call him a bad guy, but he’s not a guy I’d want to cross paths with — especially not in a dark alley.
Whiplash is an invigorating new film about jazz music, a novelty in and of itself, and one of the most buzzed-about projects to come out of this year’s Sundance. It won both the jury and audience awards, and it’s easy to see why. Damien Chazelle’s direction has as much energy as the jazz. At times, it feels like an action movie. And in the music scenes — particularly the invigorating grand finale, set (but not filmed) at Carnegie Hall — he’s basically creating the world’s first jazz porn (that I’m aware of). There are lingering, fetishistic shots of golden sweat dripping off of cymbals, and off of Miles Teller. This is not a film that asks us to sit back and take in the music, but actively makes the audience a part of it, with cuts that feel as percussive and hard to pin down as jazz itself. The film’s title comes from a piece that proves central to the film’s story, but it also describes the feeling you may have watching it. (Cue whip-cracking sound.) Chicago is off somewhere sulking in a corner feeling sorry for itself after seeing Whiplash. It’s all that jazz, and all that other jazz, too. It is all of the jazz everywhere, so fuck you.Teller plays Andrew Neiman, bringing his usual earnest cockiness to a role that turns out to be a lot more physically intense than you’d expect in a movie about a jazz drummer. He likes to see classic movies with his father (Paul Reiser), he has a crush on the cute girl who sells him popcorn and Swedish fish at the theater (Melissa Benoist), but mostly, all he cares about is jazz. He can identify classic pieces played in obscure pizzerias and spends his free time listening to Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich instead of Foster the People or Mumford and Sons. He wants to be the best, and he’s willing to go through a lot of hell to get there, which includes bloodying his hands for his art. (He’s as much a perfectionist as Natalie Portman’s Nina in Black Swan, but thankfully a little more mentally balanced.)
Alongside him to crack the whip is Fletcher, the fearsome instructor at Schaffer, a Juilliard-esque music school in New York City. Fletcher, too, wants nothing but the best, and he is willing to terrorize and dismiss any student who doesn’t give it to him. His methods include throwing things, slapping students, and a hell of a lot of cursing, mocking, and screaming, the kind we usually hear from drill sergeants and football coaches. (In fact, there’s a scene that directly contrasts Andrew’s achievements with his cousin Travis, who is not as good a football player as Andrew is a drummer.) He reminds me a lot of my 7th grade P.E. teacher, who might very well be in jail right now. I used to have nightmares about him.Are Fletcher’s frightening teaching methods truly believable in the real world? No, not really. They’re exaggerated to an intentionally comic extreme, and J.K. Simmons chews into the role like he’s the next Avengers villain. (In truth, he’s actually much more menacing than anyone we’ve seen out of the Marvel universe lately.) I don’t buy for a second that Fletcher could have been teaching this long without some kind of intervention by either the faculty or the police, but the character and movie built around him are so intense and seductive it hardly matters. What does matter is that we understand how sheepish these students must feel in front of Fletcher, the complicated way he keeps them in a vice grip. Teacher-student relationships like this are a real thing, even if the physical violence isn’t.
Simmons is likely well on his way to an Oscar nod for his troubles, and perhaps even a win, though there’s some debate over whether he’s a Lead Actor or Supporting. (I say Supporting, but just barely.) It’s anything but a subtle role, and there’s an almost-unnecessary scene late in the game that attempts to humanize him, but it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Fletcher and Andrew both want complete and utter perfection. They’re willing to go to extremes to get it. And no one else in the movie really gets that.Is perfection worth it? That’s one question that floats by as Andrew breaks up with Nicole in anticipation of her holding him back when she feels herself competing with his commitment to jazz, and inevitably losing. Most prodigies aren’t so prescient, and I admired the way Chazelle didn’t waste our time with unnecessary hemming and hawing over a love story that doesn’t much matter. (There’s also a refreshing lack of cliched father-son drama of the sort we often find in these movies.) Whiplash shows us what Andrew could have if he were an ordinary student rather than a musical prodigy, then takes it back because being the best at something means sacrificing everything but that passion. Fletcher is probably a lonely man, and there are a lot of indicators that Andrew will be, too. But so was Charlie Parker. Is being the best worth being alone and miserable? For a small segment of the population, the answer to that question is: hell yes. And if that isn’t your answer, get the fuck out of Fletcher’s classroom.
In case I haven’t already made it clear, Whiplash is a highly entertaining movie, one with just enough downer gravity at the core to give us something to chew on once it’s over. The Fletcher character, as written and as portrayed by J.K. Simmons, is so over-the-top it’s borderline campy, which might not have worked in a movie that didn’t feel so coolly and confidently assembled. In Whiplash, all the elements come together with just the right skill, at just the right tempo, like a perfectly trained band. This year’s Frank might be a more moving account of a tortured genius, but Whiplash is more rousing and kinetic. I listened carefully, and couldn’t identify a single false note.
I don’t know if that’s perfection, but it’s a hell of a lot more than a good job.