It's a fun exercise to speculate (or legitimately ascertain) what it is about certain films that have made them "critics' darlings" on the festival circuit. In the case of Whiplash, a razor-sharp music-school drama opening Friday at select theaters, J.K. Simmons' performance is certainly at or near the top of the list.
Simmons, a native Detroiter whose gruffness has found versatile, memorable onscreen homes — the abrasive flat-topped editor J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman franchise, the vile Aryan Brotherhood commandant in HBO's Oz, the sweet, wise, everydad in Juno — has turned in another iconic performance here. He is Terence Fletcher, a notoriously strict professor/conductor at the Schaffer School of Music, America's pre-eminent and most cutthroat (fictional) conservatory.
In the film's opening scene, Fletcher comes upon Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) a promising first-year drummer bashing away on a kit in a practice room in the middle of the night. Immediately, Fletcher begins drilling him, demanding complicated jazz beats at light-speed tempos. He's unimpressed and walks out without explanation.
Fletcher runs a studio jazz ensemble at Schaffer, a group from whose ranks Lincoln Center and high profile orchestras take their annual pick. Neyman gets tapped as an alternate drummer early on and enters into a hostile relationship with Fletcher, whose extremism is revealed to have had psychologically devastating effects on prior students. Fletcher berates Neyman during rehearsals, humiliates him, hurls chairs and music stands at him — all while the panting student is gushing blood from blisters on his hands. It's impossible to know if the intensity here is exaggerated, but you've never seen an art school dramatization this violent, never seen a body poured more literally into (and onto) a musical instrument.
"There are no two words in the English language," says Fletcher in one of his few quiet moments, "more harmful than 'good job.'"
And that's the trouble. Andrew Neyman refuses to be coddled. He wants only to be great, and to be remembered — even at the expense of personal relationships and emotional well-being. And as much as he comes to loathe Fletcher, he seems almost impelled to respect his means and the ends they justify.
Speaking of ends: A jazz concert may seem like a tough sell as a film's exhilarating climax, but rest assured that it is. As the antagonism between teacher and student plays out in thrilling, unexpected ways, the drama of the film is reified in the music of the drum set: its clangor, its extreme tempos, its taut, persistent, explosive snares.