A teacher, his student, and the perils of pedagogy.

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash
J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash.

Courtesy of Daniel McFadden/Sony Pictures Classics

At first sight, Damien Chazelle’s second feature, Whiplash, appears to be a movie about jazz drumming. Beginning with the kinetic opening shot—in which the camera travels down a dark conservatory hallway to home in on a lone young man (Miles Teller) feverishly practicing on a drum kit—scenes of percussion abound, often shot in sensuous close-up with drops of blood and beads of sweat visible on the instrument’s taut surface. The 29-year-old Chazelle, himself a former drummer, makes movies percussively too: The whole film (which Chazelle also scripted) is put together like a jazz set, with long virtuosic solos, repeating themes, and intimate, slower moments alternating in jagged syncopation.

Even if you couldn’t care less about jazz drumming, though, Whiplash is a thrill to watch. Underneath that taut, stylish surface, it’s really a movie about the perils of pedagogy, about the relationship between a passionate (perhaps too passionate) student and a demanding (perhaps too demanding) teacher. Which is to say, a movie about a uniquely powerful and potentially destructive form of love.

Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a 19-year-old musician in his first year at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York. Achieving greatness as a drummer is Andrew’s sole focus in life; his dorm walls are covered in photos of his hero, jazz percussionist Buddy Rich, and his social life consists of little more than the occasional movie date with his nebbishy single father (Paul Reiser), a high school English teacher and failed novelist whom Andrew both loves and dreads becoming. One night as he’s drilling alone in a practice room, Andrew attracts the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the much-feared conductor of the school’s elite studio jazz band. Fletcher invites Andrew to sit in as the group’s youngest member, alternate drummer and page-turner—then proceeds to humiliate and browbeat the boy into a state of near-despair.

The middle section of the film is as intense an exploration as I’ve seen of the sadomasochism inherent in the teacher-student dynamic. Fletcher alternately builds up Andrew’s confidence with warm words of encouragement and tears it down with emotional and sometimes physical abuse. A toxic (but mordantly hilarious) combination of The Paper Chase’s loftily condescending law professor and a trash-talking sports coach, Fletcher is the kind of unconventional pedagogue who thinks nothing of winging a chair at his pupil’s head when the tempo drags by a fraction of a beat, or punctuating tips on musical timekeeping with a series of brisk slaps to the face. Fletcher also subjects his students—in particular the talented but arrogant Andrew—to a steady stream of colorful invective, including raunchy homophobic slurs. By the end of their first rehearsal together, he’s brought Andrew to tears in front of his older bandmates, winning both the boy’s lasting resentment and his redoubled dedication to his craft.

This teacher-pupil conflict is well-trodden dramatic ground, but Chazelle and his cast invest it with fresh energy, making the outcome of a series of college jazz competitions feel as unpredictable and exciting as a season of major league sports. J.K. Simmons, who we’ve come to think of as an amiable supporting player in big ensemble casts (Law & Order, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies), delivers a career-redefining performance as the fiercely demanding, possibly unbalanced jazz guru. Simmons studied conducting as a younger man, and his musicality is apparent in every gesture. When he cuts the band off over and over again midmeasure, chiding them for flaws and imprecisions inaudible to the average listener, we believe he hears the mistakes, and that belief is what allows us to regard Fletcher as a gifted educator and not just a sadistic son of a bitch.

The film’s moral force comes from its open-ended exploration of how much teacherly ferocity is too much. A story Fletcher enjoys telling his students, about the drummer Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at a teenage Charlie Parker to punish him for losing the beat, becomes a kind of Zen koan about the limits of performance and pedagogy. Was it that incident that sparked Parker’s transformation from a merely excellent saxophonist into a sublime artist, the legendary Bird? Or is Fletcher merely finding a way to justify his own sick need to torment his students past the point of sanity? “Have fun,” he’ll advise his ensemble before a big show—then proceed to shame and insult them in the least fun way imaginable.

It’s rare that a movie leaves it this open how we’re meant to feel about a major character, right up to the end. Fletcher’s excessive investment in his students’ perfection is both his greatest strength and greatest weakness—an ambivalence that’s held beautifully in tension by Simmons’ muscular performance (literally and figuratively muscular—who ever knew Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson could be this cut?).

Whiplash’s last scene—about which I’ll say only that it involves a high-pressure concert at Carnegie Hall—will be a subject of debate at many postmovie dinners. It’s extended, intense, and sometimes logically absurd, with enough turn-on-a-dime reversals to fuel an entire crime thriller, as the tension that’s been building between teacher and pupil resolves itself in a Sergio Leone–like standoff. That this musical showdown works as well as it does despite the scene’s mounting ridiculousness is a tribute to Chazelle’s sure hand behind the camera. In conjunction with his editor Tom Cross, he turns that last big performance into a directorial tour de force, cutting rhythmically without ever cutting directly on the beat. The music, most of it by Justin Hurwitz, is hard-edged modern bebop, and it suits this movie’s bold, staccato style.

And Miles Teller, oh, Miles Teller. A revelation as an alcoholic high school slacker in last year’s The Spectacular Now, Teller cements his reputation here, with an off-kilter energy and restless intelligence that’s reminiscent of John Cusack (whom he physically resembles, and whose son or younger self he should play in a movie forthwith). Andrew may not always be able to keep up with his exacting guru’s musical tempo, but Teller’s quiet, inward performance keeps up with Simmons’ bold and showy one beat for beat. The student’s obsessive temperament dovetails with the master’s brutal perfectionism—in several scenes (perhaps a couple too many), Andrew plays the drums till his hands bleed onto the kit.

A subplot about Andrew’s romantic dalliance with a sweet movie theater employee (Melissa Benoist) isn’t necessary to the movie because Whiplash’s love story is already there in the form of Fletcher and Andrew’s complex, enmeshed, fiercely adversarial relationship. As we leave that last crazy scene in Carnegie Hall, it’s unclear who has the upper hand in this messed-up dyad, or what their respective futures may bring. But it’s evident that the kid behind the camera has a great one ahead of him.