It’s certainly not uncommon to have a fear of authority figures. Most people have had at least one teacher, boss, or even family member that they’ve been slightly apprehensive of. But I’m not sure if anyone has experienced someone as intense as Terrence Fletcher, one of the major characters in Whiplash. In his second feature film, writer/director Damien Chazelle creates a jazz conductor who seems to have arisen straight from the depths of hell. His relationship with a young, aspiring student is abusive and truly terrifying. Watching this deranged conductor torment his students is certainly difficult and Chazelle doesn’t shy away from the horror of the story. This is a film that’s undeniably powerful, impeccably crafted and will surely push viewers further than would have expected.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young drummer who has just enrolled in the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the entire country. His passion and dedication for music haven’t left him much room for a social life, but he does manage to secure a date with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a young woman who works at the movie theater that he frequently visits with his father (Paul Reiser). After a surprise audition, Neiman is accepted into the top jazz band at the school, led by the brutally intense Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Not only does Fletcher push his students past the breaking point, but he also psychologically and sometimes physically abuses them. Neiman is initially shocked at Fletcher’s methods, but this doesn’t discourage him. In fact, Neiman practices even more than he used to and is willing to push his body past the breaking point, all in order to prove to Fletcher that he’s got what it takes.

Expect for music education enrollment to take a steep decline, because it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to join a band after seeing Whiplash. This isn’t a heartfelt story of a teacher encouraging a student to do his best; it’s a story of a harmful relationship between an abuser and an abusee. Watching Fletcher inflict his wrath upon his students is harrowing and Chazelle makes us feel right in the moment with them. There are scenes in this movie that are so agonizing to endure, that I actually had to look away from the screen because of the uncomfortableness of the situation. Words truly cannot describe how difficult some of these scenes are to watch. Chazelle’s directing is so spot-on, that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the situation and completely forget that you’re watching a film. He’s less concerned with showing off than he is with creating a truly disturbing and provoking experience. Still, he manages to impress with the musical sequences, which are ferociously well edited by Tom Cross. Watching Neiman pound on the drums, while Fletcher sadistically chastises him, is nothing short of excruciating to endure.

Neiman isn’t always the most likable guy; he’s more than willing to sacrifice relationships with the people that he cares about if it means a higher chance of success. But Miles Teller’s performance brings a likability to this character that allows us to care for him, even when some of his actions go past the realm of rational human behavior. Whenever his family, friends or girlfriend get in the way of his achievements, he’s more than willing to call them out on it and put them down. Even though he behaves like an entitled jerk in quite a few scenes, we know that it’s his obsession with finding success that is causing him to act like this. This is an extremely physical performance and Teller makes us feel the pain that Neiman is experiencing on the drums. Fletcher often pushes him so far that his hands begin to bleed and blood begins to pour onto the drum kit. Watching Teller perform in these scenes makes it seem like he’s really in as much pain as his character. A scene towards the end of the film where Neiman attempts to play the drums after sustaining an injury is brutal to endure.

As great as Teller is in the film, the performance that is sure to get people talking is J.K. Simmons as Terrence Fletcher. Fletcher is one of the most vicious, ruthless, disturbing and downright evil characters to appear in a movie in quite some time. He honestly makes R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket seem like a gentle soul in comparison. Simmons is perfectly cast in the role, bringing a frightening presence and air of authority to the character from the moment we’re introduced to him. Fletcher is not the kind of guy you want to mess with. He has no qualms with torturing his students, as long as it gets a better performance out of them in the long run. We see him act polite to the general public, but once he’s in the practice room, he holds nothing back. This is an astounding performance. You won’t be able to take your eyes off of Fletcher and the terror that he brings to his students.

Some viewers may question why Neiman doesn’t just drop out of the band if Fletcher is so abusive to him. Therein lies one of the most interesting aspects of the film; Neiman doesn’t drop out because he wants to prove to Fletcher that he has what it takes. We live in a society where it’s no longer fine to be ordinary. Everybody wants to receive fame, fortune and recognition and Neiman hopes to achieve that through his music. Neiman is surprised to learn that Nicole doesn’t mind being ordinary and he proceeds to tell her that he not only wants to be great, he wants to be one of the greats. This is what pushes him to practice until he’s bloody, without any regard for his health or his humanity. Chazelle’s script smartly explores these ideas of wanting to achieve something regardless of the cost. Even if Neiman is able to become a truly great drummer, was it worth the abuse that Fletcher put him through and the destruction of nearly all his personal relationships?

All of this builds to a final sequence that is equal parts shocking and exhilarating. Just as the film appears to veer towards a fairly obvious ending, the rug is pulled out from underneath us with a truly surprising reveal. Chazelle manages to find an ending that is neither completely uplifting nor completely upsetting and entirely avoids the schmaltz that is typically associated with similar films. Whiplash is more frightening that any horror film I’ve seen in years and one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve ever had. With taut direction, amazing performances and an infectiously toe-tapping jazz soundtrack, this is sure to blow away viewer expectations. To call it intense is an understatement.

Whiplash receives 4/4

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