I’ve been meaning to write something all week in honor of spring break, but I’ve also been sick throughout my time home. I finally started feeling somewhat back-to-normal three days ago and also have something that I really want to talk about before I lose time.
I haven’t really talked about it on this blog, but I’m actually a pretty big fan of the actor J.K. Simmons. I first saw him in Gravity Falls and kind of fell in love with the man’s voice (silly, I know). I felt fascinated by the arrogant and guarded (but still good-natured) character he played on that show and wanted to know more about what else he’d done in his career. Around that time, my boyfriend also got me to watch The Legend of Korra, which he starred in as mentor and guardian to the show’s main protagonist. And while I think his performance in that show was great, I won’t remember him as Tenzin. It just didn’t stick out to me the way both Ford and the character I’m about to talk about did.
Anyway, shortly after I was first really introduced to Simmons’ work, I became aware of this movie he was in called Whiplash (2014). The film is about a young man who goes to this prestigious music school and ends up as a pupil to an abusive, authoritative jazz instructor whose teachings slowly drive him to pursue an extreme form of perfection at the expense of what made him human.
Miles Teller starred in the film as the abused pupil, Andrew Neiman, while Simmons played the teacher Terence Fletcher. Throughout the entire film we see Fletcher degrade Neiman constantly, all while we’re made aware of the fact that a former student of Fletcher’s committed suicide due to the abuse he suffered at his hands.
And that’s where the movie went from stressful to outright terrifying. Neiman never walked out on Fletcher, even after the teacher was fired from the school. He always ended up back in this man’s life because of his own perseverance. And I personally believe that that was exactly what Fletcher wanted and where Neiman went wrong.
But I want to talk about Fletcher himself. We’re never really given the reason for him acting the way he did, but there are small hints to something more to his character than just being a jerk (and that’s putting it lightly). Probably the biggest example I can think of that makes me wonder about him is this line (WARNING – STRONG LANGUAGE):
Now, the part that really got to me was when Fletcher said “father-fucking.” Why would he say “father” instead of “mother”? As small as the line is, it sticks out like a sore thumb. As I said, we never get to see or hear Fletcher’s motivations for acting the way he does. I’ve seen some fans comment on how it could mean that Fletcher lost his mother. If that were the case, I would postulate that Fletcher is in deep emotional pain throughout the film and takes it out on anyone who will bite, which would explain his abusive “teaching” methods.
But that begs the question, why is he so extreme in those methods? That alone wouldn’t explain everything. I feel like part of the reason Neiman got so tangled up in Fletcher’s abuse was because he wanted to be a great drummer and was being driven by the man to do so, not caring that the teacher’s behavior was damaging his psyche in the process. By the conclusion of the film, Neiman is a drone because of what Fletcher had done to him (the screenplay literally calls Neiman a “machine” at the end. I’m not kidding – it’s on page 101) and the post-credits scene heavily implies that he died young.
Fletcher has Neiman in his clutches from the very first minute of the film. Neiman practices in a private room and Fletcher walks up to the doorway and watches him. When Neiman reacts, Fletcher shuts him down and walks away. From there, it all just goes downhill.
Admittedly, it’s not entirely Fletcher’s fault that all of this happened. We see young Neiman repeatedly work himself to death to impress the man and we see him go through extreme emotional turmoil just to prove that he is great. Neiman repeatedly runs back to him, even after the teacher leaves the school. Fletcher is only guilty of provoking him and stringing him along.
At the core of his character, Fletcher is a personification of what passion is without love. Yes, everyone wants to be great at what they do and as human beings we always want to improve ourselves. But Fletcher’s character shows what excessive negative pressure can do to an artist, turning something they loved and were passionate about into something that they no longer enjoy.
Music, for Neiman, slowly became a tool that Fletcher used to trap him into becoming his version of greatness. And, by the film’s end, it’s obvious that the pursuit of a passion for the wrong reasons can lead to personal downfall rather than the success the individual originally wanted. Neiman never showed a genuine love for music in Fletcher’s classes, even though the opening of the film has him in a good place on the drums. He was passionate in class, but he was only so to one-up the man and remained trapped in this pursuit of greatness while never showing genuine love for his craft because Fletcher’s abuse was taking that away from him.
In my opinion, passion without love for the activity is a recipe for disaster and failure. I say this because, without that genuine love for what you’re doing, the activity is more torture than it is fun. In the beginning, we see Neiman actually enjoying playing music and working to improve himself on his own. Fletcher slowly starts to take that away from him once they meet, culminating in Neiman becoming a great musician at the expense of what originally made him sympathetic.
As the movie points out, this also happened to Fletcher’s former student Sean Casey. We do see Casey’s suicide have an impact on Fletcher, but yet all he does is cover his own ass, saying that Casey died in a car crash when, in reality, the poor kid hanged himself because of Fletcher’s abuse. This makes me wonder if Fletcher even has the ability to be empathetic and sympathetic. We see him react to the news about Casey, but considering his subsequent behavior toward Neiman, we can come to the conclusion that he doesn’t use the situation to change his methods for the better, which of course culminates in Neiman’s implied death at the end.
There is so much more to the story than what we’re told on the surface. Fletcher is shown as more of an obstacle to the main protagonist, but his sole purpose is to showcase what passion without love can do to the mind. He takes what was originally genuine passion for music and decimates it in his desire for the outcome to be perfect. And that right there is the problem. There is no destination when learning a musical instrument, no point at which someone can say that they no longer need to practice. And Fletcher shows how that dangerous search for perfection can destroy the humanity of both the abuser and the abused.
I say this because there is a lot about Fletcher’s character that is inhumane. He appears within the first minute of the film out of nowhere and is able to take command of almost any room he so much as walks into. He uses this command to show that he has a startling lack of empathy and doesn’t care whom he stomps on to get his way. But what makes Fletcher so frightening is that he embodies exactly what a relentless search for perfection can do. He could have once been in Andrew’s shoes, wanting so badly to be one of the greats. And that search could have destroyed every last bit of humanity in him, just as it did for Andrew at the end.
The concept of wanting to be the best you can possibly be is banal enough – as a matter of fact, in the right hands, it’s a great drive to have. But what makes this film so unique and thought-provoking is that it gives light to what happens when you have passion but lack heart. Passion in concert with genuine enjoyment for an activity is what makes the entire experience fulfilling. And, as this film demonstrates, the loss of that heart can only lead you to dark places.
I highly recommend this movie. It’s an exhilarating, heartbreaking story with a message that will stay with you for a very long time.