Whiplash is a brutal drama about cruelty in the pursuit of art based upon director Damien Chazelle’s experiences at a competitive music conservatory. The film has recieved five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and actor J.K. Simmons’ performance continues to garner universal acclaim. His Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor follows a very successful run with various guilds and organizations this past fall leading into the New Year with nine wins, including the Golden Globes, British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs), the New York Film Critics Circle, Toronto Film Critics Association, and many others.
The relationship between mentor and student can be fraught with conflict, but rarely do we get to witness the kind of viciousness inflicted by brilliant conductor Terence Fletcher upon his pupils. After accepting wannabe jazz drummer Andrew Neyman into his class, he proceeds to humiliate and abuse him in the name of hardening him into a skilled musician.
Fdescribed the character of Fletcher in a recent interview with J.K. Simmons as “well aware of the power he holds over his students, and his pedagogical methods are perverse at best.” Film Comment's look at the film follows:
Picture a boss barking comically profane orders from behind a desk and it’s likely that J.K. Simmons springs to mind. An actor whose presence looms large even when his screen time runs short, Simmons has played his fair share of entertaining hard-asses over the years, from the blunt tobacco lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking (2005), to the cigar-chomping newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies (2002, 2004, 2007). Fueling a surge in attention for the screen (and theater) veteran, his performance as the maniacal band teacher in Whiplash puts a volcanic talent center-stage.
With a gleaming bald head, deepening lines in his face, and a naturally authoritative voice, Simmons tends to be cast in roles that are either fearsome or fatherly. He’s played a neo-Nazi in the TV series Oz (1997-2003), a no-bullshit psychiatrist on Law & Order (1994-2010), a blind divorcee on the recent NBC series Growing Up Fisher (14), and, of course, the deadpan professor in the Farmer’s Insurance commercials. On the “nice guy” end of the spectrum Simmons is perhaps best known as the patient patriarch in Juno (2007)—in fact, he’s acted in every single one of Jason Reitman’s films, and it was Reitman who recommended him for the role of Terence Fletcher in Whiplash.
As he hazes wannabe drum-phenom Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), Simmons’s Fletcher is well aware of the power he holds over his students, and his pedagogical methods are perverse at best. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” he explains to Andrew. Yet even if we despise Fletcher as a human being, we believe that he believes in what he’s saying, and the film operates almost entirely in this gray zone Simmons creates between mentor and monster.