The tortured artist

Musical mentorship drama "Whiplash" proves that nothing focuses like pain

What does it take to be "one of the greats?" And would the cost be worth the reward? These are the questions at the dark heart of "Whiplash," an indie "Amadeus" set in a New York City music conservatory.

Funny word, that: "conservatory." To conserve is to save energy or to protect from harm. But fearsome instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) makes it his mission to inflict punishment on students, doling out emotional and physical injury as necessary in order to help them achieve greatness as musicians (and, by extension, to secure his own legacy as the purveyor of greatness). If the waste of a student's time, money or even life should occur, well, it's all a part of the cost of doing business: the business of art.

It's Fletcher's world, and now Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is living in it. One of the Shaffer Conservatory of Music's most brilliant students, Andrew quickly learns to want precisely what he can't have from Fletcher: respect. Like a spider with a fly in his sights, Fletcher lays psychological traps for Andrew as he draws the student into the complex web that is the competitive studio band, where students live in a constant struggle for "first chair."

Not since R. Lee Ermey in "Full Metal Jacket" has there been a more brutal drill sergeant than Fletcher, whose oft-repeated favorite story recounts the time Charlie Parker "became" Charlie Parker: the moment bandleader Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Parker's head.

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job,'" Fletcher maintains.

Andrew proves receptive to this point of view, and is repeatedly surprised by how much further he can be pushed. He begins as a devoted player and an intent studier of Buddy Rich recordings, but under Fletcher these practices become obsessions that drive out all human connections except that with the leader of this musical cult. Seduced and abused by his new spiritual father, Neyman comes more deeply to resent his own father (Paul Reiser) for his lack of "success," and determines that new girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) isn't worth the time and head space she takes up.

The theater-of-cruelty narrative culminates in a spectacular performance climax -- a wildly intense capper to the film's series of increasingly taut confrontations (including a family-and-friends dinner at which Andrew blows up in frustration over cultural definitions of success). Writer-director Damien Chazelle establishes himself as an intelligent new voice in film with this bracing draft of cold air in what's thus far been a largely airless year at the movies.

Striking photography and sharp editing are important to the film's success, but it's the career-best performances by Simmons and Teller (both better known for comic performances) that make "Whiplash" unforgettable. Simmons cuts a figure of smug sadism, unquestionable ferocity and disturbing melancholy in an impressively physical performance, while Teller's progression to dead-eye focus, dripping blood on the drumhead in the process, shows a commitment equal to that of his character. By any definition, "Whiplash" is a success.

Rated R for strong language including some sexual references. One hour, 46 minutes.

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