by Diya Chaudhuri
SPOILER ALERT: I don’t much care about spoilers. Knowing what happens in a movie or book has never stopped me from enjoying it, so long as it’s a well-done piece. As Calum Marsh points out in his defense of spoilers, “Only the thinnest and cheapest films can be truly spoiled by knowing their twists ahead of time, which is why, for instance, Citizen Kane seems no less great if one knows that ‘Rosebud’ is the name of a sled.” So, this has spoilers in it. Be warned.
Yes, it’s a good movie. The aftershock of a drum kit’s still grumbling in some vague but pleasant part of me even now, an hour after having left the theater, and yeah, the acting in this one’s the best of any film I’ve seen this year. But the real bitch of this movie is that the director/writer was born in goddamned 1985. Damien Chazelle is, for about one more month at the time of this writing, still in his twenties, and I’m furious about it. It’s an acceptable reaction, I think, for this particular film.
Though it’s easy to just say this movie’s about something we’ll call “drive,” anyone trying to get pretty damn good at a thing they love knows that drive is never just one emotion, never has a single root. Drive’s a nasty web, a couple thousand intersections of vanity, self-loathing, desire, vulnerability, rage directed toward the innumerably undeserving (parents, teachers, significant others, strangers, more successful artists, ourselves), pride, shame, fear, and, of course, jealousy. I’m going to forgive myself for letting this movie draw jealousy of out me because it was in there somewhere, planting itself in my head.
Though the writing is solid, it’s the acting that really pushes this movie into “something special” territory. Reading the words in the script (or at least the words that made it onscreen), you wouldn’t actually see that much jealousy. There would be hints of vanity, pride. There would be rage.
But to look at it on the page, I imagine the overwhelming emotion you’d read would be desire. The main character — Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old first-year jazz drummer at the nation’s top music conservatory — wants a whole lot. He wants a spot in the best ensemble at the school; he wants a spot in the core; he wants, above all, to be the best, and inarguably the best, at what he does.
But drive is more than clean desire. It isn’t one-dimensional; neither is this movie. The jealousy, the self-loathing, the shame — it’s all in there, just held in the bodies of Miles Teller, who plays Neiman, and J.K. Simmons, who plays his demonically demanding teacher, Terence Fletcher. The jealousy and insecurity is in eyes that refuse to acknowledge the presence of other ensemble drummers in the room, even as Neiman arrogantly dismisses their talents. The self-loathing’s in the snarling mouth as he practices alone, in eyes squeezed shut as though willing his body not to let him cry at how hopeless it all is. There’s a sense, when he sits back and looks at his kit, that Neiman cannot believe that the drums are just sitting there, capable of so much, but that his miserable failure of a body fails to bring it alive. The sheer disappointment in the self, rendered so much sharper when paired with the vanity of believing in one’s own potential. What honest writer hasn’t felt that, staring even at their best effort?
Teller’s portrayal of Neiman is relatable to me only in that it’s the fantasy version of myself that I imagined when I was younger. He’s human, but still an archetype. He’s the embodiment of that quoted Neil Young line in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
And Simmons, too, plays an archetype —the implacably demanding teacher — but this is the most convincingly and most interestingly played iteration of the character I’ve seen in a long while. The insults felt more biting, more real. I believed them more than I ever believed in the disappointment of, say, Vincent Cassel in Black Swan. If nothing else, his portrayal brought out for me the terrifying, strangely arousing (???) intensity of former Georgia State football coach (all blue, all in, y’all) Bill Curry in ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary, The Boys of Fall:
I would believe it if that guy threatened me; there’s rage somewhere under the surface of that restraint. And I believed every second of Simmons’ presence on screen. Despite having seen the trailers and knowing that his character was supposed to be a monster, I fell for it like a dope when Fletcher feigned supportive interest in Nieman’s personal story just to extract information to be used mere moments later in a public evisceration. When he hurled a chair, I believe in my heart that Simmons was aiming for Teller’s head. Leaving the theater, my boyfriend and I wondered how many of his insults had been ad-libbed because they belonged so much to the real world and not to the arts that attempt to reproduce it. Simmons delivers a character both revoltingly cruel and irresistibly charismatic, and I would watch this performance all day on a loop if I could.
Though the acting’s the greatest achievement here, the story is worth discussion too. (It’s about to get spoilerful — jump ship if you must.) This is a movie about a relationship triangle. There’s a girlfriend and a breakup, and then there’s a new boyfriend. But in a pleasant departure from what we’ve come to expect from movies, this isn’t the relationship Whiplash brings into focus.
I can’t put into words how satisfying it is for a woman in a movie not to see the male protagonist as someone obviously to be forgiven, as someone who should, after some consideration, always still be taken back, regardless of how badly they fucked up before. Neiman doesn’t fuck up that hard in this movie. His ex just doesn’t care. The main character of this movie, as special as he thinks he is, as special as he actually is, is subject to the same currents as the rest of us. Sometimes, women move on, and they just don’t look back.
The one who looks back in this movie is Fletcher. After being let down by Nieman, after being betrayed by him, it’s Fletcher who cannot let go, who comes back, this time on wings of vengeance. It’s Fletcher who loves Nieman in his strange, ferocious way all the way through to the closing frames of the movie. As Linda Holmes pointed out on Pop Culture Happy Hour, this is a story about a young man in a triangle with two fathers. What’s interesting here is that the student in the student-teacher relationship is not, as is usually the case in movies, without a father figure at home. Neiman has Jim — a supportive father, played by Paul Reiser, who loves him unconditionally, who doesn’t want to see his son sacrifice happiness for achievement. The dueling father figures never confront each other, never even acknowledge that there’s a struggle for a boy’s allegiance.
The closest they come to any sort of interaction is in the final, terrible scene, in which we witness Nieman finally release the inhuman (purely human? too human?) id that’s been tingling just under the skin for the whole movie during a drum solo. Simmons displays the full range of emotion in this scene — at first vengeful and smug, then enraged, then grudgingly respectful, proud, awed. By the end of it, I saw love — a true and dangerous love. And from the wings, we see Jim the Proud Father watching his son — who had always been talented — exceed a father’s wildest expectations, his most ludicrous hopes. But there’s a moment where we see him recognize what’s happening to his son. The last time we see Reiser onscreen is a shot of his face as Jim watches his son play. The eyes are soft, proud — and then there’s a shift, a widening, a horror. Off-screen, Fletcher is romancing his son into a manic, animal state.
And that’s the happy ending of this movie. Yeah, it’s a happy ending: the greatest performance of Nieman’s life. But it’s also the giving over of the self to Fletcher’s way of life. It’s choosing the abusive father.
As a writer, it’s an ending that will have me questioning myself for a while. The movie sets a fairly facile dichotomy: there’s happiness and there’s success. We all know that’s not true. And yet there’s still some idiot, gnawing voice somewhere in the driven part of me that hisses the same self-loathing and doubt that permeates this film. I’ve never written a thing I’ve been happy with. If I gave up the boyfriend or the long Christmas visits with my parents, if I gave up Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives marathons, or friends, or drinking — what if it made a difference? What if I just don’t want it enough?
I don’t think this movie’s trying to answer any questions. It’s not trying to give a formula for success. We don’t ever learn whether or not Nieman becomes the next Charlie Parker. This movie is just a story, and it’s everything a story should be. Flannery O’Connor said that “A story always involves in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter what happens; what matters is who it happens to. A story is finished when the author has revealed everything needed for the audience to fully understand the characters’ natures. If that’s the bar we set, I don’t know that any other movie this year has achieved what this one has.