What makes a great cinema villain? On paper we look for a bit of nuance and moral ambiguity, but on the big screen, we tend to like our bad guys to be at least a little over-the-top. If well-executed, cartoonish, one-note villains like James Bond’s string of world-dominator nemeses can find a fond place in our hearts and pop up regularly as cultural memes.
But the ones who take up lasting residence in our nightmares are the ones who veer from memorable extremes of evil to charm that wins the unsuspecting victim’s trust, or whose behavior is at least unpredictable enough to keep the viewer perpetually off-balance. Robert Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter knows how to act righteous and woo a woman. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men kills most people he encounters, but will spare others based on a coin toss. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs will most likely eat your face if he gets a chance, but might help you out if you earn his respect.
But it was Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross – the cold-blooded movie director who will do anything to his actors, however dangerous and reprehensible, to capture a realistic-looking scene on camera in The Stunt Man – who came to mind for this reviewer while watching Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s mesmerizing tale of a bullying music teacher and his star student. Both characters hold up making great art as their rationale for their acts of calculated cruelty, and both have their moments of charm and simulated simpatico. Terrence Fletcher, the terrifyingly overbearing, verbally and physically abusive professor of jazz at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory portrayed by J. K. Simmons in Whiplash, plays Bad Cop about 90 percent of the time and Good Cop about ten percent – but only to worm out clues about his pupils’ fears, weaknesses and childhood traumas that he can use against them later on.
The critical praise and award nominations being heaped upon Simmons since this film wowed the crowds at the Sundance Festival a year ago are utterly justified, and it’s easy to see Fletcher joining the short list of Hollywood’s most memorable villains ever. The intensity of his performance makes Whiplash feel like the most riveting thriller of the year, even though most of it takes place in classrooms, hallways and auditoriums.
If you just had read the screenplay, you might conceivably have dismissed it – as most studios did during the years when Whiplash languished on Hollywood’s “Black List” of most promising unproduced film projects – as a dull, overly earnest, artsy character study. There is a sequence involving reckless driving, true, with outcomes more closely resembling what happens when people drive recklessly in the real world than in action-movie car chases. But most of the blood spilled in this story comes from young protagonist Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) practicing his drumming for far too many hours on end. Nonetheless, I found myself developing a stiff neck before the movie was half-over, just from the tension of watching Fletcher’s highly charged interactions with Neyman and the rest of his battered brood of jazz stars of the future. Whoever thought that a music teacher could be as much of a martinet as the harshest boot camp drillmaster?
The things that Fletcher says and does to his students, the sadistic ways in which he manipulates them psychologically to weed the weak and the mediocre out of his core band, at times surpass the point of plausibility. It’s hard not to notice that none of his top students is female, which may be less a matter of sexist casting than that having a male teacher treat young women this brutally would add a whole different social dynamic to the story, and maybe the screenwriter/director simply didn’t want to go there. But Simmons is so damn convincing as this horrible perfectionist that we’re willing to submit ourselves to young Andrew’s ordeal, all in the name of art. It’s a singularly painful sort of moviegoing pleasure.
However good Simmons is in this incredibly demanding role, Whiplash wouldn’t work if he weren’t matched stroke for stroke by Teller, for whom this is likely to be a breakthrough movie surpassing his much-lauded performance in 2013’s The Spectacular Now. Aside from the technical challenge of learning to play drums well enough to convince us that he’s the 19-year-old next Buddy Rich, Teller crafts a character who is far more than just another talented kid with stars in his eyes à la Flashdance. Bouncing back time after time from having his ego pounded, he begins to absorb and embody the master’s lessons on levels other than the musical. Neyman undergoes a chilling transformation from determined acolyte to reciprocal abuser, dumping his nice girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) when he begins to see her as a potential distraction from his singleminded drum practice and then turning the tables on his tormentor using some of Fletcher’s own tricks.
Whether that message of the bullied morphing into the bully was the filmmaker’s intent is not entirely clear; Whiplash might also be interpreted, disturbingly, as an endorsement of a macho dog-eat-dog worldview, or the Tiger Mom philosophy of parenting in which offering your child any encouragement for less-than-perfect performance is seen as lethal to future success. Those who will draw that lesson from it probably already look down on anybody who will offer a kid an A for effort, so never mind them. See this movie anyway and don’t bother trying to make a life lesson out of it. Whiplash is brutal, but it will stick with you a long time.