Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a talented drummer in his first year at the prestigious Shaffer Music School. He is spotted while practicing by Professor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and invited to join his jazz group, rising to become the core drummer. He soon learns that Fletcher has a unique teaching style, mostly involving terrifying his students, berating them, being rude and abusive and excessively demanding. But Andrew's own desire to be the best means that he is inclined to push himself to his limits to please Fletcher.
The film is a fantastic character study of two men with very particular world views. Andrew believes that being the best at what you do is the only thing that matters. He is in part attempting to get away from what he sees as the mediocrity of his family, middle-grade jobs, and achievements of personal importance though little wider social worth. His ideal is to be known and respected as one of the greatest of all time. Fletcher is likewise on a mission to find the next transcendent talent, with a belief that the only way to do this is to push people beyond what is possible. To extract every last drop of passion from them. This often leads to him going too far. Fletcher is a largely unsympathetic character, some might even actively despise him, but there is something noble in his single-minded determination to discover genius. Andrew, in contrast, is an almost tragic figure, with his obsession seemingly providing little reward. His entire life begins to be stripped away leaving nothing but him and the music. The two character's relationship is mirrored by that of Andrew and his father and the film deals with themes of fatherhood in a subtly brilliant way. The essential difference is between being caring and accepting of failure, or pushing for perfection, and is one of the central dilemmas of the film.
Whiplash is a stunning film that finds in its subject of jazz drumming the perfect stage for expressing its themes. The montages of Andrew's bloodied hands as he pushes through the pain barrier to improve and even the backing sound of crashing cymbals and the ripple of drums creates and aural experience that matches perfectly the tensions playing out between the characters. The film would not succeed without the incredible performances of Teller and Simmons, who embody their characters fully. The film may be seen by some as too simplistic, and the plot can be easily explained in a line or two, but there are nuances of character that go much deeper than the surface story. The camerawork with close-ups, hand-held shots, and expressive cuts during the musical sequences help to create a momentum that propel the film forward. A fantastic film about determination, genius, greatness, that also comments on notions of fatherhood.