Neiman: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)
Fletcher: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)
Scott, I thought Whiplash was a movie about car accidents.
Well, there is a bad car accident in this movie. But the story is about much more. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to young Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a freshman music student who wants nothing more than to be one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. He is practicing in the halls of Shaffer Conservatory when the imposing music director Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) walks in. He is the conductor of the school’s award-winning jazz ensemble. Fletcher auditions Neiman and allows him in as an alternate drummer. Fletcher drives all his students with both physical and emotional abuse. It isn’t long before Fletcher starts abusing Neiman by throwing chairs and slapping him.
Neiman is obsessed with being the best drummer of all-time. He practices until his fingers bleed onto his drumset. He breaks up with his girlfriend so that he can spend every waking moment fulfilling his dream. Fletcher creates a ruthlessly competitive atmosphere to bring out the best in his players, and Neiman knows he cannot miss a beat if he wants to keep his job on the band. One day when Neiman gets into a bad car accident on the way to a competition, he chooses to arrive at the competition battered and bloody rather than lose his spot. He attacks Fletcher after Fletcher dismisses him, and is expelled from Shaffer. But the two men later cross musical paths one last time.
Whiplash is a battle of wills between a young man who wants to be the best jazz drummer no matter what the cost to him personally, and a man who wants to train the best jazz musician no matter the cost to those he teaches. And this is the difference between a hero and a villain. According to Joseph Campbell (mythologist and author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces) a hero is someone who will do anything he can to get what he wants at his own expense whereas a villain is someone who will do anything he can to get what he wants at someone else’s expense. This sets up our young Neiman as the hero and Fletcher as his villain.
The movie doesn’t waste any time getting to the heart of this. And in some ways I thought it rushed certain plot points. There is a wonderful scene with Neiman and his father (Paul Reiser) at dinner with his uncle and community-college cousins. They’re having a battle of opinions over whether it would be better to live a long happy life or a short and spectacular one. Neiman points out that Charlie Parker was the best jazz musician of all time. The uncle throws in that he lived to be only 35 years old. But Neiman is unrelenting, firing back that while it may be true that Parker lived a short life, he impacted everyone as they are still talking about him around the dining room table.
Whiplash surprised me. It’s a low-budget movie without a huge star in it, and yet it is very effective in capturing the most important steps – and missteps – in life. Whiplash pits two men against each other. One is an underdog, an up-and-coming college kid who will do anything to become the best at his craft. The other is an older, established teacher who will do anything to remain at the top of his profession. You would think that the teacher is the helpful mentor figure here, but you would be (mostly) wrong. These are two characters destined to collide. The kid’s triumph over his evil mentor is the crux of the hero story, and it is both fun and disturbing to watch.
Although I enjoyed this movie, I’m left somewhat confused by its message. Maybe ambiguity about ambition is the point of the movie. On the one hand, Fletcher’s teaching methods inflict emotional damage on his students. On the other hand, we learn that his methods ultimately turn Niemen into the best jazz drummer Fletcher’s ever seen. I’m reminded of Tiger Woods, whose father Earl ruthlessly drilled greatness into Tiger but at great personal cost. Is the movie telling us that this is the only roadmap to greatness? I hope not.
I think you’ve misplaced the role of Fletcher. He is a mentor – but a dark mentor, villainous in his approach. He recognizes talent in the young Neiman and while Neiman is trying to impress his mentor, the mentor refuses to acknowledge any talent the young man may have. Fletcher believes that only by challenging the student will the greatness arise. In the end, Neiman is humiliated by Fletcher and Neiman is ready to quit. But at the last minute he turns around and takes control – not just rising to the challenge Fletcher has laid down – but overpowering him with his intense drumming. Finally, the master has found the student he has been seeking and the student has found the teacher he deserves.
I think this movie is telling us that one can achieve greatness only at huge personal expense. And it is left to each of us to decide if the price of greatness is worth it. As Neiman points out in his dinner-time argument, if greatness were easy, everyone would do it. It’s pretty clear that the moral of the story is that if you want to be great, you have to give it 100% of everything you have. Nobody achieves greatness giving their best 90%.
J. K. Simmons does an absolutely wonderful job portraying the villainous Fletcher. His performance may even be Oscar-worthy. I think you’re right, Greg, that Fletcher is an anti-mentor. Just as we have anti-heroes (e.g., Nightcrawler), we also have anti-mentors who send heroes down dark paths that can lead to ruin. It’s then up to the hero to overcome the dark mentor. In Whiplash, Neiman’s dad plays the good mentor role whose unconditional love is there to counteract Fletcher’s bad mentoring influence. I don’t think we’ve seen dueling mentors at all in the movies this year, and Whiplash shows this battle in full force.
I think this is also dueling father figures, Scott. At the end of the film, Neiman is humiliated and goes running to his father for solace. At the moment he is about to surrender and fall into his father’s arms (going back to the safe and comfortable) he turns instead and fights back against the conflict-ridden father image that Fletcher offers. You’re right, Simmons’ performance is spot-on. It is forceful without being over the top.
This also reminds me of the coming-of-age stories of a teen who has to beat his father at sports to emerge as an independent adult. Also, this is reminiscent of the samurai movies where the student must endure torture from the master in order to discover the hidden kung-fu master within. Paul Moxnes has a family-oriented hero structure that includes the good mentor and the evil mentor or wizard. Fletcher is offering Neiman the road to greatness, but it is a dark path.
Whiplash is a fascinating coming-of-age tale with a dark edge to it. This movie had my full attention for nearly two hours and I give it credit for emotionally moving me and offering surprises at the end. The performances are rock solid and there are also some damn good musical performances throughout. I’m more than happy to award this film 4 Reels out of 5.
The hero journey follows the classic pattern and throws in a few welcome surprises. Neiman is cast into a dark, dangerous world and doesn’t realize how much he’s in over his head. Fletcher’s mentoring seems destined to hurl Neiman toward destruction, but with love and encouragement from his good mentor, our hero musters up the strength and courage to outwit his evil foe. There is a love interest, a father figure, dueling mentors, and more. I see no missteps here at all, only outstanding performances from the entire cast. I’m giving our hero 5 Heroes out of 5.
As we’ve noted, the villain character is an anti-mentor whose cruel, self-aggrandizing methods come at the expense of our hero. I’m thrilled that Whiplash shows us a rarely-seen brand of villainy. This film teaches us to be wary of how we choose our mentors; not all of them look out for our best interests. Fletcher is a lying, cold-blooded, abuser who doesn’t quite get his full comeuppance at the end but is nevertheless defeated. I’m giving him 5 Villains out of 5.
Whiplash had very little that left me wanting. I thought the love interest was sort of thrown in with little development, so I didn’t really feel a sense of loss when Neiman dumps his girlfriend. Also, the father/son/uncle/cousins story was not fully developed – but it was enough to show a contrast between the thinking of someone who wants to be excellent versus the rest of us, content to do “just fine.” But these had to be given less time so that the contest between dark mentor and rising star could be investigated to its fullest extent. I give Whiplash 4 out of 5 Reels.
I agree with you, Scott, that Neiman represents the classic hero coming of age story. In the classic tradition of “when the student is ready, the master will appear,” Fletcher and Neiman come together at a time when each is seeking the other. And Neiman makes the transformation from neophyte to master in 120 minutes. I give Neiman 5 Heroes out of 5.
And what a wonderful gem of a villain/mentor we have in Fletcher. He is driven not to be the best, but to find someone he can mold into the best. We get a sense that he is living vicariously through his students, perhaps having given up on his own greatness hoping to live it out through others. This is not a simply evil character, but a textured and even tortured soul. I give Fletcher 5 out of 5 Villains.