Since "Whiplash" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, J.K. Simmons has been the focal point of the film's awards prospects. That praise comes with good reason: Not only does Simmons give a true standout performance in "Whiplash," but after 20 years of steady work and 142 credits to his name on IMDb, the quintessential character actor deserves a chance to shine.
In Damien Chazelle's breakout feature, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Simmons plays a jazz maestro named Terence Fletcher, who abuses the musicians in his care at a prestigious New York institution on a daily basis. Fletcher is a guy who probably thought Bobby Knight was soft. He hurls racial and homophobic slurs around like chairs. (He also throws a chair.) It's a showy role for Simmons, and he makes the most of its ups and downs.
But at the risk of making a terrible music pun, Fletcher is also kind of one-note. After a while, the insults become expected, and his motivations are explicitly spelled out: He's doing this for the children, because in a world where trophies are handed out for attendance, no one is expected to truly excel. He's a villain who has our best interests at heart.
Thank goodness, then, for Miles Teller, a villain worried about his own interests. He's Andrew Neyman, a talented jazz drummer who thinks he's good enough to become one of the greats. As a result, not only is Andrew willing to put up with Fletcher's torment, but he also throws away his family, friends, girlfriend and even some blood, sweat and tears. The trick of "Whiplash" is that we're pulling for Andrew in his tug-of-war with Fletcher, until we're not. These two guys deserve each other, the film tells us, because who else would ever put up with either one of them?
That's why Teller's work in "Whiplash" is kind of revelatory. As the 27-year-old has climbed Hollywood's ranks, he's displayed both the smart-aleck energy of a young Shia LaBeouf and the verbal dexterity of Vince Vaughn. He's normally playing the bad boy with a heart of gold; the douche bag you'd bring home to meet mom. But in "Whiplash," Teller's boyish good nature hides some deep, frightening flaws. On a long enough timeline, you feel like Andrew will become a true sociopath. Teller is given less to do than Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" -- a movie Chazelle likely found very illuminating on his journey of making "Whiplash" -- but he's nearly as perfect. Portman won Best Actress for her troubles in "Black Swan"; Teller is barely on the extremely early list of possible Best Actor contenders.
Yet as much as Simmons towers over "Whiplash," it's Teller who holds this film together by utilizing a full bag of tricks (including playing the drums, a feat every bit as impressive as gaining or losing significant weight for a part). Teller is now a permanent member on the Next Great Leading Man list alongside Chris Pratt, Chris Evans and James McAvoy. If only he had Oscar buzz to go along with his ascension. Maybe he can borrow some from Simmons.
"Whiplash" screened at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens in theaters on Oct. 10.