PR agent Ray (Bateman) insists that his new client, a troubled alcoholic superhero called Hancock (Smith), wins over the public first.
First step: Words of encouragement. Get them on your side. Make them like you.
And so, Hancock, the self-loathing, reclusive and reluctant role-model, closes down a hostage saga, walks up to a cop, and invokes a tiny shred of kindness from deep within his dark soul.
“Good job”, he chokes.
No, really. “Good job!” Thumbs up.
Fast forward to 2014.
A self-proclaimed anti-hero, who believes that suffering and sacrifice is essential to discover the superhuman amidst and within us; a real-world Mr. Glass looking for his David Dunn; bellows repeatedly:
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job’.”
Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons) means every word. This isn’t some cute snarky teaching anecdote to break the ice.
In Whiplash, he preaches this to every new set of petrified students. He believes in, and practices what he preaches.
He is a jazz aficionado. A gruff enthusiast, scratch that, an all-out jazz fanatic and a legend in his own mind. A hard-arsed music teacher in America’s finest music school, Fletcher is also a parent’s worst nightmare.
Some of his students survive him, some of them don’t.
Those who survive him don’t particularly love music by the time he’s done with them. They graduate, and procreate, and live their lives—much like war veterans returning to civilization after a scarring tour.
They meet him pleasantly in the hallways with their little toddlers. They speak to him with a smile, but place the toddler in front as a human shield, almost like they’re protecting themselves against his devastating rants. Rants that have burned into their memories, and voices they’ve drowned out with an overdose of ordinariness, of averageness and routine.
There’s a good man somewhere deep within him, a man Fletcher strangles and kills when he lurks the halls of his music school.
Fletcher wears a tight black tee, possibly a size smaller, to make sure they can see his bulging biceps.
His isn’t exactly the gait that comes to mind when you think of an eccentric teacher.
He looks like the guy who shaves his head not because he is balding, but because he doesn’t have the patience to comb his hair.
He invokes the rugged masculinity and forced profanity of a mean football coach. He possibly even has a tattoo or two somewhere on his toned midriff, and that isn’t even his most intimidating trait.
Most notably, Fletcher has absolutely no respect and no patience for mediocrity.
“I’m doing my best” isn’t as good as “I’m doing the best”, and he detests weak hearts. From the way he reels in nervous newbies by first putting them at ease with an indulgent smirk, and by throwing around a few funny anecdotes, he doesn’t seem to be a naturally grumpy fellow.
And he knows that his students know he is putting on a show. It works precisely because they don’t know who he really is.
Terrence Fletcher knows that his students are aware that he can go to any lengths, way outside his comfort zone, to squeeze music—his life—out of them. Music he wants to hear. Music he has probably lived with all his life. The kind of music that was just out of his grasp when he was a student, because perhaps he wasn’t good enough.
But he knows the top of the mountain. He has seen others scale it, and he has the ear for it.
Fletcher is a modern-day reincarnation of Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s lifelong rival, whose dramatic story was told gloriously in Amadeus.
Salieri envied Mozart, and felt inconsequential in his presence. He was scheming, jealous and talented, but on a very human level. He believed that pompous little Mozart was chosen by God to play His Music.
Fletcher, a brash avatar of Salieri, perhaps wants to create a Mozart, so that he can then fight him, envy him, cheat him and eventually bring him down. He craves for a tortured genius, not a perfect musician.
He wants a greater equal who would be indebted to him, and maybe try to emulate him.
He sees this person in Andrew by the end.
This is perhaps just the beginning of their toxic relationship. Not exactly a rivalry, but a partnership that would often be mistaken for teacher-protégé companionship that, according to Fletcher, the jazz world desperately needed.
Somebody has to become a martyr.
Someone must sacrifice normalcy for the greater good.
Fletcher believes he is the chosen one, the man music has chosen to recruit the next Buddy Rich. He forces his students to feel that they could be the chosen ones, or the next Miles Davis, but only if they allow it; a no-win situation for the parties involved, but a win-win for the adoring enthusiasts.
Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) wanted the greatness to stem from within his own blood, his own home, in Mr. Holland’s Opus. His son was born deaf, and he eventually settled on a journey, instead of a search for the best of the rest.
He wouldn’t begrudge Terrence Fletcher his towering ambitions, his frustrations and ordeals. He would despise Fletcher’s ways though. And Fletcher would mock his ways, call him a softy, and pass on a few unkind words about his mute son too.
Holland is a good, kind man destined to build castles out of mediocrity. And there is no place for goodness and kindness in the upper echelons of Fletcher’s oft-delusional, obsessive quest.
Whiplash doesn’t delve into Fletcher’s life beyond his rants. His eyes tell us a lot though; he loves music in an unhealthy way, and hates it to understand more.
He plays at the odd jazz club on cold evenings. His presence isn’t very full in the outer world. He resembles a civil city legend entirely aware of his own reputation. He probably goes back to his flat on campus, and refuses to adorn his walls with photos of his ex-wife and gay son.
Sentimentality has no place in his life, just like fat has no place on his toned, ageing body.
Watching Terrence Fletcher made me uneasy.
He became the real-world personification of a figure that never existed, but one that I might have craved. He made me want to please him. To impress him. And one day, to blow him away.
He made me want to jump into his world and show him that I have what it takes. A smile, a soft word, would be lovely, but only if nestled between violent bouts of abusive, inhumane behavior.
Andrew took my spot, of course. I hated that he did.
Andrew isn’t unfortunate. He reaches, and exceeds Fletcher’s tempo, and his battle has only begun.
While I grew up, I heard “Good Job” way too often, and somewhere along the line, I stopped worrying about how to do more than a good job. People around me weren’t very fond of overachieving at a young age, and believed in evolution taking its course.
I strived to excel in whatever I did only because I enjoyed the admiration I saw in others’ eyes. Not my parents’ eyes, which I knew shined brightly and unconditionally whenever I accomplished something, remote as these achievements were.
I enjoyed the quiet whispers behind me in the halls more.
Fletcher silences those whispers, makes them irrelevant, and wants them replaced by wild screams and applause. Once the applause dies down, he wants more.
I looked for a real Terrence Fletcher, but never made an active attempt to find him. I settled for many, many Mr. Hollands instead. I took it upon myself to be my own father, and be my own Fletcher in equal doses.
I’m only 28 though, and if I’m unlucky or lucky enough, perhaps someone I really want to impress will come along. Till then, I’ll have to crack my own whip. And create my own tempo.