What defines the iconic horror villain? There are a few superficial commonalities to be found among the usual suspects: they’re almost invariably men, sometimes bald, always terrifying in their relentless opacity. If these are the criteria, then surely Terence Fletcher, as embodied by J.K. Simmons, qualifies. Fletcher is the conductor of the fictional Shaffer Music School’s studio jazz band. These halls are not the most conventional setting for a horror movie, I’ll concede. Nonetheless, Whiplash is horror through-and-through. It’s a heart-pounding experience more distressing and affective than any horror film from the past decade, and proof that the genre is more effective when specialising in atmosphere and technique than jump scares.
Fletcher, unlike many of his horror compatriots, is flesh-and-blood. He’s humanity distilled, as though he’s been put to a harsh flame and had all impurities removed. This unadulterated intensity is evident in his appearance: bald head, protruding veins, muscular physique, tight black t-shirt, tight black blazer, zero bullshit. Simmons delivers a superlative performance, presenting a man condensed by his own self-inflicted pressures into a hard-edged diamond through which only thin glints of humanity shine.
The film is similarly stripped back, telling a tightly-wound tale of artistic ambition and a deeply combative teacher-student relationship, though it also proves that minimalism isn’t necessarily simplicity. Fletcher’s disciple is Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), introduced playing drums as the camera stalks him from Fletcher’s perspective, much as Jason Voorhees creeps slowly towards the teens of Crystal Lake. Andrew does little but play the drums. He wants to be great. He wants to be one of the greats. He wants his name to be uttered in the same breath as legendary jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich. And in his mind, Fletcher represents the only opportunity to reach this level.
Despite the opening shot’s suggestion that we’ll adopt Fletcher’s perspective, Whiplash’s chief success is how effectively it puts us into Andrew’s mental space, where obsession curdles into borderline sociopathy. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, who based the film loosely on his own experiences with a tyrannical drumming teacher, demonstrates a masterful command of the formal aspects of filmmaking. He demonstrates grand flourishes throughout, just as a drummer might impress his audience with a theatrical solo. The editing hums with the pulse-racing rhythm of the music. The showy filmmaking ranges from rapid-fire close-ups assembled like an action film to flashy whip-pans between Simmons and Teller. Whiplash isn’t a horror film on the page, but under Chazelle’s careful curation, it’s starkly terrifying.
But the subtler technical work is there too. Take the scene where Andrew is to play the drums for the first time after his invitation to Shaffer’s prestigious clique. After a brief conversation with Fletcher – which Andrew believes to have been an affirming pep-talk, though is soon revealed as insidious psychopathy – he strides into the room with the subtlest hint of swagger. Chazelle brings us into Andrew’s head by matching his confidence with an almost imperceptible application of slow-motion. Andrew is calm, so we are calm. But there’s a tension quavering beneath the scene: the anxious, anticipatory silence of a violin string stretched to breaking point.
Soon enough, it snaps. Andrew’s inability to master complicated rhythm on first attempt drives Fletcher to an incandescent rage. He hurls a chair at Andrew. Andrew isn’t calm anymore, and Chazelle conveys the shift in mood by changing from fixed camera to handheld. Again, it’s incredibly subtle – there’s only the merest quaver of the frame to give it away – but combined with the music and the pitch-perfect performances, we feel as though we are in Andrew’s seat, facing this monster. We are terrified.
As Whiplash progresses, its intensity ramps up (so too does its use of handheld, which evolves from ‘rarely used’ to ubiquitous). Whatever version of ‘success’ Andrew desires, he strips away everything striving for it. He drags his mattress down to a dingy basement to perfect his drumming. He dismisses the girl he’d started dating, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), convinced she impeded his ambition. “Got any friends, Andy?” his uncle asks him at a family dinner. The answer is “No.” But we knew that already.
In the same conversation, Andrew’s cousin asks him how jazz competitions are judged. “Isn’t it subjective?” he asks. “No,” responds Andrew again. This line is telling not just in terms of Andrew’s perspective on jazz – it’s about precision, it’s about perfection – but in terms of how Chazelle has presented his film. Subjective has two meanings: Andrew’s cousin means ‘open to the viewer’s interpretation’, while it might also describe alignment with a character’s perspective. Whiplash is certainly the latter, but the film isn’t necessarily as ambiguous as it first appears.
The central, critical question of the film is a simple one: is Fletcher a good teacher? He’s clearly not a good person. Chazelle doesn’t shy away from showing Fletcher’s cruelty, his verbal and physical violence. But many have interpreted the film’s ending as an affirmation of his tyrannical teaching techniques. The argument is straightforward – Fletcher’s ruthlessness is necessary to achieve perfection. But I’d contend that Whiplash provides evidence to undercut this interpretation.
The film does use subjectivity; specifically, Andrew’s perspective. He is single-minded, obsessive, and so is the film. At 4:3, Ian Barr notes that Whiplash’s conclusion “pointedly cuts to black, the end credits rolling before [the audience] get[s] a chance to (surely) rapturously applaud.” This is an important observation. The audience isn’t perceived as important from Andrew’s perspective, and so it’s understandable that the film’s audience would share that view. But Chazelle isn’t beholden to Andrew’s perspective alone. Chazelle has lined his films with little details to subvert the reliability of his character.
At the studio band’s first performance with Andrew, a brief shot of the audience reveals a concert hall barely a quarter full. The rehearsal room’s oppressive blackness hints at the obsessive dedication of the studio band; its all-male roster is more telling. We can glean from overheard, barely audible conversations that Andrew’s bandmates don’t embrace the same reclusive approach to socialising as he. Late in the film, Andrew stumbles across Fletcher performing at a jazz club. It’s sparsely attended, because of course it is. Greatness isn’t objective; it’s subjective. It’s how you perceive yourself to be perceived.
Whiplash is many things, but perhaps most importantly, it’s a film about a particular brand of toxic, competitive masculinity that drives men to destroy others in a nebulous pursuit of ‘greatness’; the kind of ‘manliness’ that justifies violence and gay slurs and emotional tyranny. Award Daily’s Sasha Stone opines that “a film like Whiplash could have starred all women and been every bit as good.” I take her point. I’d love to see that movie (you could argue that we already did with Black Swan, another excellent horror film about artistic obsession). But Whiplash is fundamentally about the damage that men do to each other and themselves chasing something impossible. That’s scarier than any lunk with a hockey mask and chainsaw.