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Film Review: Whiplash

"The two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job’”. So says JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher, respected and feared music teacher at prestigious academy where Miles Teller’s Andrew attends school. This much is known: Fletcher is a physically and verbally abusive prick who is never going to inspire his students to stand on their desks in tribute. In fact, they’re much more likely to be fleeing the classroom in tears. But Fletcher would tell you there is a method to his madness, that the only way to inspire true greatness is to push others far beyond their limits until any vestige of humanity is eradicated and only the artist in his purest form remains. Whether Fletcher truly cares about his students, or just gets off on being a raging asshole is one of the movie’s suspenseful open questions, that it takes its sweet time answering. JK Simmons truly proves that he deserves the respect and admiration that we afford our greatest actors: Hackman, Nicholson, Streep. He’s right up there.

Going into this thing, I was hooked by the premise. The “inspiring teacher” trope is so overused in Hollywood it has become its own genre. Robin Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Michelle Pfeiffer, Edward James Olmos, Morgan Freeman, and countless others have taken their turn at the front of the classroom, selflessly molding young minds for a better tomorrow and yadda yadda yadda. While some of those movies are good, the genre itself is so played out that there’s really nothing else to be mined from it. Unless of course, you turn the whole thing on its ear, as is done here. Perhaps you’ve had a teacher like this, or another mentor-figure. Perhaps you’ve felt, as Andrew does, that accomplishing something to get the approval of one who stubbornly withholds it feels like the most important thing in the world, even more important than the actual accomplishment itself. At nearly forty, I’d completely forgotten what that felt like, how the Cult of Personality can suck you in and not let go. But then I watched this and it all came flooding back. Going in, I was prepared to judge Miles Teller’s character as young and naïve. I was not prepared to feel his pain so acutely, to want Flecther’s approval so badly. This is emotional time-travel. For two hours, I was twenty years old again.

And that’s all before the film’s final fifteen minutes. No one dies, nothing blows up, no one in tights and a cape saves the world from annihilation, and yet–it’s absolutely a hold-your-breath, thrilling, twist on top of twist, suspenseful wonder to behold.

Oh yeah, and the jazz music is pretty great, too.


Top image © Sony Pictures Classics.