Horror is expanding as a genre. Although your local multiplex is peppered with the usual contenders, look a bit closer at the schedule and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this new, bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, the story of a jazz drummer driven mad by his psychopathic music teacher, has garnered hugely positive reviews and is rightly nominated for several Oscars, with JK Simmons a shoo-in to collect the Best Supporting Actor gong on the night. The film is described, somewhat vaguely, by the IMDb as a drama, a label that simultaneously limits it while lumping it in with the likes of, say, The Hunstman. It’s an important film, not just for obvious reasons but because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a horror movie. It isn’t traditional by any means, and it doesn’t fit into the usual sub-genres. But it’s Not Quite Horror, which is something entirely different and, often, much more interesting.
Let’s start with the obvious: Whiplash is so much more than a simple drama. For one thing, it’s about jazz drumming–hardly the most dramatic of subject matter (metal is another story). It’s a tense, claustrophobic and often harrowing tale of obsession, not just with music, but with Simmons’ alpha male teacher, Fletcher. A man/monster, he establishes himself as one of cinema’s greatest villains right from the opening sequence, during which Miles Teller’s Andrew tries, and fails, to impress him. It’s evident from the outset that Fletcher is held in extremely high regard and that he’s more than a little intimidating (Andrew later tells his father simply “he saw me play today” as though the teacher has been the subject of discussion for so long, he doesn’t even need to be named anymore).
Over the course of the film, we see Andrew watching Fletcher from afar, clearly desperate to understand who he really is as a person but never quite coming up with anything. When his teacher first explodes at him, in a rather disturbing sequence, set during their very first music lesson together, Fletcher uses information he’s gleaned only moments beforehand (about Andrew’s fractured family situation, in particular) to humiliate and ridicule him in front of the other students. He manipulates Andrew first by assuring him he’s been chosen for a reason, asking him to repeat the phrase back to him as he smiles kindly, before completely tearing him apart in the dark, windowless, almost prison-like practice room, a room in which he will soon find himself trapped, but also where he desperately wants to be.
The central conceit forces us to ask ourselves whether Andrew is complicit in the abuse, whether his genius is being brought out because of it or whether his teacher is just a twisted, borderline sociopath. In fact, Fletcher’s methods of manipulation are so studied, so deliberate that it’d almost be admirable if he weren’t so twisted. Several critics have pointed to the homoerotic subtext that is, allegedly, present in Whiplash as a means of identifying it as something a bit darker than the typical by-the-numbers drama. Regardless of whether you buy into this idea (Simmons himself has suggested a sexual subtext is a definite possibility), the teacher-student dynamic presented to us is truly sick.
Fletcher is a hideous, arguably quite evil man; blatantly and proudly mysognistic, racist and, yes, homophobic, while Teller’s Andrew provides the perfect punching bag for him, his pudgy, scarred face (the actor was involved in a car accident a few years back) communicating everything even as he says nothing. It’s easy to believe Fletcher when he tells him he’s been chosen for a reason, but naturally it isn’t quite the reason he thinks. Teller inhabits the character, and is more than capable of stepping up to the plate opposite Simmons. Not a classically handsome man, he shrugs in oversized hoodies, skulks the corridors of his college and hides underneath a shag of messy brown hair.
In contrast, Fletcher ensures he stands out constantly, dressing all in black, with a head shaved clean and honed biceps on display as he ruthlessly conducts his group. He speaks in harsh, clipped tones, considering every word. Andrew fumbles when he has to answer him, even openly crying at one point, much to his tormentor’s amusement. As the cycle of abuse continues, we watch Andrew slowly fall apart as he pushes ever harder to impress his mentor. He becomes totally isolated, completely cold, as he punched through a drum-skin in frustration, coldly dumps his girlfriend, grows increasingly annoyed with his kindly father and, in one particularly memorable sequence, dunks his bloodied hand in ice-cold water, the liquid turning a sickening shade of crimson as he does so.
This scene is particularly memorable as the jug is positioned at the corner of the screen, much like a torture implement in a horror movie, as Andrew drums until he can’t move his hands. Chazelle positions the two men front and centre throughout, with everyone else blending into the background as the camera zooms in ever closer on them – Simmons’ snarling, Teller cowering. An overwhelming sense of dread permeates everything, the tension ratcheted up until it’s almost painful. As Andrew loses his grip on his life, the camera gets shakier until everything falls apart, quite literally, in one explosive moment, after which he continues to stumble on, covered in blood, only to be torn apart even further.
Blood features heavily here, the flick a much gorier affair than one would assume. Teller spends much of it covered in the stuff, while his kit is splattered throughout, Chazelle giving us knowing glimpses of it here and there. During one, key sequence, Andrew and two other drummers battle it out for a coveted spot in an upcoming contest, not so much a battle of wits as an exercise in torture, as Fletcher barks orders and screams at his protégé, in particular, to “keep playing” no matter what.
Indeed, “keep playing” is the overwhelming message of the film, as troublesome as it is. Keep playing no matter who you hurt, keep playing no matter how much it hurts you, keep playing even when everything else falls apart. Fletcher circles Andrew like a vulture, hurling not just abuse but, in one particularly shocking moment, a chair. The kid is so destroyed, mentally and physically, that he later has to be dragged away kicking and screaming as he launches himself at his teacher, with the camera focusing on a bloodied cymbal to show just how messed up he is. We spend the whole film worried one of them is going to kill the other, and this creates an insurmountable tension.
Once Andrew is forced to piece his life back together, he’s so broken that he’s reluctant to even speak up about the abuse he’s suffered. There’s a sense that he doesn’t see it as abuse when, subsequently, Fletcher makes a rather convincing argument for how he pushes his students towards greatness and is therefore justified in his approach. The question hangs over our heads about whether Andrew needs to be pushed this way in order to succeed.
One of the most shocking revelations at the heart of Whiplash is that one of Fletcher’s past students committed suicide. This doesn’t shock Fletcher, in fact he uses it as an anecdote with which to push his current crop further, exemplifying the essence of the character; he is a sociopath and a bully, and he spots Andrew as a weak little loner who has the potential either to be completely broken by him or to “achieve greatness” as it were, whichever comes first (and there’s really no question).
Whiplash leaves us to decide whether Andrew is the hero or the villain of the piece. For instance, when he learns he’s lost his chance with the girlfriend he cruelly disposed of, it’s a moment of sadness that, on some level at least, feels justified. Andrew isn’t a totally likeable person, but that is why his interactions with Fletcher are so super-charged. The centrepiece of the film is undoubtedly the first practice session, during which Fletcher utterly annihilates Andrew. It’s here that we get our first glimpse of exactly what this man is capable of, and, although we’ve met him previously, the dread begins to build here as the camera zooms right in to capture just the two men, building a sense of claustrophobia that doesn’t let up even as the narrative expands.
Simmons’ performance is remarkable, and the Oscar hype is justified, but without Teller (who plays drums himself in the flick, the pain and frustration on his face all too real) the horror of the abusive relationship at the heart of Whiplash wouldn’t be quite as believable. The real horror of the film is that it could happen, and indeed Chazelle has suggested he based Fletcher on one of his own horrible teachers. There is a certain moment considered slightly too melodramatic by some but, given what’s come before, and taken as a metaphor for how wrecked Andrew’s life is, it’s a serious punch to the gut. Considering so much of modern horror is built on jump scares, this is also one of the most effective jolts in recent years.
The narrative is punctuated by moments of gore, but the true horror is in Fletcher’s sustained and systematic abuse of a student whose obsession with impressing him seems to grow the more unspeakably he treats him. Whiplash is a stunning portrayal of a student on the edge, and the teacher who pushes and pushes him over it, toward an unachievable greatness. In the end, the question of whether Fletcher’s methods are justified hangs low over Andrew who, sweaty, exhausted and broken from what’s come before, makes one final attempt to impress him. The horror of his struggle is rooted in real life because we can all identify with wanting to be great, with pushing ourselves to keep playing and with wanting to believe, more than anything else, that we’re good enough.