Whiplash is one of the best films of the past five years, and certainly one of the best indie films of all time. Yes, before he brought back the musical genre in style with La La Land, Damien Chazelle proved to everyone with this breakout hit that he is a man to be taken serious with. Whiplash blew everyone away on its initial release. Winning the top audience and grand jury awards in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film became a massive critical success. With only a 3 million dollar budget, it’s truly remarkable what Chazelle was able to do to make this film so intense and thrilling. This was a film that ended up on most people’s “best of the year” lists in 2014, and racked up a multitude of awards. The film ended up winning three Academy Awards for the sound mixing, editing, and one particular acting performance. This acting performance was won by no other than Mr. J.K. Simmons. Simmons’ performance in this film is truly spectacular. He plays the ever-so-quotable but malicious jazz music teacher, Terence Fletcher. This character is menacing and will stop at nothing to get his students to perform at the best of their capabilities. Even by going as far as to throw a symbol at someone’s head. Fletcher is a fascinating character, and for some is a pure villain who enjoys reaping havoc on young students and intimidating them to no ends. But I like to think a little deeper than that. Allow me to explain….
(This breakdown will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Whiplash yet than I recommend you do so before continuing onwards)
Unwrapping the mind of Terence Fletcher is a tricky one, but truly fascinating to think about and analyze. On a first watch of Whiplash, it might seem obvious that Fletcher is a villain. He treats most of his students like crap. He yells at them, cusses them out, and even will kick a student out of a class just to prove a point. Even if they didn’t make a mistake. His teaching style is very unique, but can most certainly be frowned upon by most viewers. We are all rooting for our main protagonist, Andrew, played brilliantly by Miles Teller. Andrew is the young, talented, and committed young drummer who soon finds himself under the vengeance of Fletcher. Andrew is a sweet and humble jazz student who eventually gets sucked into Fletcher’s mad spells and soon becomes obsessed with being the best and proving all who doubted him wrong. Andrew eventually gets more confident as a character in himself and his drumming. The movie which began as a cat and mouse game between Andrew and Fletcher, soon becomes a chess match with each character continuing to one up one another.
The film takes a dramatic turn when Andrew, who at this point has become so consumed in his drumming, gets into a car accident and injures himself badly. He even goes as far as to immediately get up from the wreck and continue on to the big competition that he is late for. When Fletcher realizes what happens to Andrew, he fires Andrew without feeling a bit of remorse for what has happened to him. Andrew eventually tells his lawyer everything that happened and gets Fletcher fired from the school. Months go by, and soon Andrew meets up with Fletcher once again at a jazz club. Next, we get a brilliant scene with Andrew and a much more mellow Fletcher at a restaurant. Fletcher gives one of the best lines I’ve ever heard that perfectly sums up the film and especially Fletcher’s character and mindset: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “Good Job”.” This scene eventually leads to the big climatic scene, that I consider to be one of the best final acts in any film ever. Fletcher invites Andrew to replace the current drummer in his band at the upcoming JVC Jazz Festival. Andrew reluctantly says “yes” and sets up the final act perfectly.
So begins the final scene. We see Andrew back where he began in the beginning of the movie, behind a drum-set, with Fletcher as the conductor. However, a big twist happens and shocks us viewers and especially Andrew. We find out that Fletcher has tricked Andrew and has invited him to perform brand new songs that Andrew has never seen before. This was all a set-up just to humiliate Andrew in front of an entire audience and to get him back for getting him fired previously in the film. Fletcher, in chess terms, has said “check.”
Andrew, who is beyond furious and humiliated, furiously gets up and walks away. At the break of tears, he meets up with his father and is ready to admit everything he has done wrong and give up on his dream completely. However, something triggers inside of Andrew’s head. He courageously walks back to the drum set and begins to start playing, without Fletcher’s initiation. This leads into one of the best final sequences of any film in recent memory. Andrew plays drums better than anything we’ve ever seen or probably he’s ever done. He leads the band, transitions betweens songs, and performs amazing drum solos. All against the protocol of Fletcher. It is breathtaking, exhilarating, and extremely satisfying. Check mate! Andrew has won, and proves Fletcher wrong once and for all and gets the final laugh. Or is he?
On a first viewing, it may seem clear that this is a revenge tale, and Andrew’s final performance was a send-off of the character Fletcher to prove him wrong once and for all. Andrew is the hero and Fletcher is the villain, and Fletcher has lost. However, having seen this film multiple times, I just do not see it as that “black and white.” I think the character of Fletcher goes much deeper than that. It is made redundantly clear that Fletcher’s teaching style is very unique and old-school. Fletcher references the great jazz musician Charlie Parker multiple times in the film. He says early in the film how Parker became “Bird” by Jo Jones throwing a symbol at his head. This might seem like meaningless banter on a first watch, but the more you watch Whiplash, the more you realize that it is exactly what Fletcher believes in. Fletcher believed that he was a conductor to push people to what was beyond of them. He said it himself in the scene with Andrew at the restaurant. That is why I believe Fletcher’s plan all a long was to humiliate/embarrass/anger Andrew to such a high point that he had no other choice but to play what was beyond of him. The final scene we see with Andrew, playing incredible drumming, is all because of what Fletcher was able to do to manipulate and motivate him to a level Andrew has never been at before. Fletcher was really the hero all along. The anti-hero for that matter.
Fletcher also mentions in that scene with Andrew at the restaurant that the next Charlie Parker would never get discouraged. The moment he says that, Andrew takes it in and processes it. I believe Andrew was thinking exactly what Fletcher told him earlier when he decided to walk back out on stage and start drumming in the final climax. The duo of Andrew and Fletcher is so fascinating and can work on so many levels. The ending is more ambitious than I make it out to be, but that is just one of the reasons the character of Fletcher is so fascinating, and the ending works so well.
One last thing I would like to mention about Fletcher is the incident that happened to him with an old student of his named Sean Casey. We soon find out in the film that Casey was a student that Fletcher really admired and was fond of. Casey was extremely talented and gifted, but eventually committed suicide, probably because Fletcher brought him to a level that was beyond him. Casey was too discouraged. The fact that Fletcher would go through that and still be motivated to find that one person he believes can be the next “great” jazz musician is really inspiring and brave of him. I think that adds another dynamic to his character and another reason why he might be more of a “hero than a villain. He really saw potential in Andrew, from the moment he listens to him play in the very first scene of the film. Andrew was Fletcher’s next Sean Casey, and it was Fletcher’s obligation to get him to a level that brought him to greatness. We see that in the final scene of the film. So, in the end, Fletcher might not be an Atticus Finch, but he certainly isn’t a villain in my book.