The word "provocative" gets bandied about quite a bit, but a movie like "Whiplash" feels like the sort of experience that will genuinely launch arguments and debates about the nature of teaching, the sacrifices made by great artists, and how far the talented should be pushed in the pursuit of excellence.
It's not just that "Whiplash" raises these ideas but also its refusal to answer any of those questions that make it such a unique experience. One imagines any number of coffee-house arguments and op-ed pieces in The New York Times surfacing in its wake.
Miles Teller ("The Spectacular Now") plays Andrew, a talented young jazz drummer who's a freshman at a prestigious New York City music school. Late one night in rehearsal hall, one of the college's most demanding teachers and orchestra leaders, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), asks him to play double-time swing. Andrew makes several attempts, never to the satisfaction of Fletcher, who walks out.
Nonetheless, Fletcher invites Andrew to sit in with his prestigious student band. The fact that Andrew is told to report at 6:00 am sharp for a rehearsal that winds up not starting until 9:00 am is just the beginning of the mind games to which this strict and demanding teacher will subject Andrew -- and, really, everyone under his tutelage.
Fletcher is well-nigh impossible to please, and his methods of getting musicians to deliver involves physical and mental intimidation and humiliation, including a barrage of insults -- homophobic ones for all the guys (there are no women in this band), of course, with anti-Irish and anti-Semitic jabs thrown in when appropriate. (Some will note that while half the band's players are African-American, Fletcher never uses the n-word. Whether that's a line the character refuses to cross, or the movie doesn't dare address, can be part of your post-screening arguments.)
Simmons gives a performance that's easy to compare to R. Lee Ermey's merciless drill sergeant in "Full Metal Jacket," but it's no retread, with Simmons providing just enough flashes of humanity (real or feigned) to make Fletcher's more intense moments that much more terrifying. People who pay attention to character actors have admired Simmons for years for his turns in films like "Juno," "Burn After Reading" and "Spider-Man," but this is the kind of role that turns a supporting player into a marquee name, whether he's playing a lead or not.
Teller manages to keep from getting blown off the screen, submerging himself into the role both physically -- Bryan Adams playing a six-string 'til his fingers bled is nothing compared to this drummer's rehearsal-induced stigmata -- and emotionally. Through his attempted relationship with a pretty movie-theater concessioner (Melissa Benoist, "Glee") and his acrid put-down of the jocko kids of his dad's friends, we see that Andrew relates better to his drum kit than to his fellow man.
Do Fletcher's sadistic punishments and his demands for absolute perfection qualify as abuse, or are they going to be instrumental in turning Andrew and his peers into world-class artists? Do the genuinely talented need to be driven hard to reach their potential, or are there kinder ways of achieving the same results? "Whiplash" isn't saying, and the fact that it's willing to treat its audiences as mature adults who would prefer to weigh these issues rather than to get easy answers makes it one of the year's more intellectually challenging films.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle ("Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench") doesn't let his interest in these ideas smother the energy of the music; the editing (by Tom Cross, "Any Day Now") matches the film's jazz rhythms, up to and including a climactic drum solo that's more hold-your-breath suspenseful than a dozen superhero rooftop battles.
More than just "Fame" for straight guys, "Whiplash" redefines the teacher movie (to say nothing of the young-musician movie) with a brutal energy and no easy resolutions. It's a challenging tune that will nonetheless get stuck in your head.