PARK CITY, Utah -- Unlikable characters are nothing new in independent film; in fact, when it comes to screen entertainment, the genre practically invented them. But with “Breaking Bad” and other staples of TV seizing the mantle of the dark antihero, there's something refreshing -- not to mention shocking, tense and even stomach-turning -- in seeing it back so unabashedly on the big screen in “Whiplash,” a new film starring J.K. Simmons that opened the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday.
Simmons is known these days mainly for jokey insurance commercials and smart-aleck but genial dad roles in movies in which younger, smarter-aleckier people are the real stars. Just after the Olympics, we'll see him go even softer, playing a blind dad in an NBC sitcom called “Growing Up Fisher.”
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Of course, years ago he played the brutal white supremacist Vernon Schillinger on HBO’s “Oz,” and he returns to that territory, and then some, in this film, a dark, music-themed drama from first-time feature helmer Damien Chazelle that also stars Miles Teller. (Chazelle developed the movie from a short that played the fest last year -- you can read my colleague John Horn's excellent story of how it came to be here.)
Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a hard-charging instructor at a prestigious musical conservatory with Julliard-esque overtones. We know little of Fletcher’s personal life or back story. What we do know is what he demands of his students in a bid to make them great musicians -- and how his perfectionism bleeds into abuse, sometimes physical and certainly psychological.
He’ll keep a student behind for hours, making him play until the student literally bleeds while he calls out vicious insults. (We’d offer an example, but most would be unprintable here.) Racial epithets are tossed around like baseballs, and he thinks nothing of gleaning a piece of information about a student’s family life just so he can spit it back cruelly to torment the pupil in front of other musicians.
The film’s plot revolves around Teller’s Andrew, a promising 19-year-old jazz drummer who is plucked from a class of beginners for special consideration. That could ultimately mean a high-profile gig and a bright future for the youngster, but it also means he is now in line for all the sprayed bullets that come from Fletcher’s direction. Andrew is an intense cat in his own right; he dreams of being a jazz drummer -- “one of the greats,” he tells his girlfriend right before he thoughtlessly breaks up with her because he thinks she’d hold him back -- with such zeal that he eschews friends and often plays until his hands bleed. (Teller is a revelation in his own right, both as an actor and on the drums; more on him separately.)
As the relationship develops, Fletcher’s demanding nature takes new and cruel forms, forcing Andrew to tolerate greater forms of abuse if he hopes to excel as a musician. (The film will remind some of “Black Swan” in its question of the price of artistic greatness, and the line between striving and self-destructive perfectionism.) Simmons imposes his method with a kind of sadistic glee that almost seems over-the-top comedic until it becomes clearer something darker is going on. There are human stakes much higher in “Whiplash” than just a “Bad Santa”-type of jokey misanthropy.
It’s the slight bits of warmth from Fletcher, though, that offer a complicating humanity -- just like, well, Walt White in his series' final seasons. Their sources of income and personalities may not be the same, and there are plenty of other differences, of course, but in terms of ego, in the surprising capacity for violence, in the ostensibly noble goals that soon become a cover for something more selfish and troubling, the two characters are surprisingly similar. Both are involved in complicated student-teacher dynamics, too.
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"Whiplash" played stronger than any scripted film to open Sundance in years, and though the movie isn’t always easy to watch, it would be surprising if it didn’t find a high-profile buyer and release.
At the post-screening Q&A, Chazelle, appearing with Teller (Simmons was tied up promoting the NBC sitcom back in Southern California), told the audience that Simmons has been “really good ... at lighthearted, kindhearted roles” but that the director wanted something deeper here.
“Remember how you were in ‘Oz’?" Chazelle recalled telling the actor. “I want to make that guy look like 'Mr. Holland’s Opus.' I want you to scare us.” He does. And also evokes memories of some other potent, indelible dark characters.