“The two most destructive words in the English language are ‘good job.’”
Our culture cannot even accept that Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) might have a point when he makes this statement. It is coded in our minds as a semantic tag marking Fletcher as “The Villain”.
But let’s really ask. Who is the antagonist of Whiplash?
The protagonist is obviously Andrew (Miles Teller), our single-minded and ambitious jazz drum prodigy. But what is Andrew’s struggle? There is a common line of thought that runs like so: Andrew’s struggle is against Fletcher’s attempts to control him. Andrew ultimately fails in his struggle, when Fletcher’s abuse culminates in Andrew successfully becoming a great jazz drummer.
Right, that doesn’t really make sense to me either.
Here’s an alternative perspective: Andrew’s struggle is exactly what Andrew keeps telling us it is: a passionate desire to achieve greatness. He doesn’t want companionship; he overtly chooses his career over his relationship with his girlfriend. He chooses his music over his health, repeatedly. Andrew doesn’t even really seem to enjoy music. His singular ambition is greatness, a Pirsigian ideal of perfection for its own sake.
Fletcher does not make Andrew do any of these things, because quitting is the sensible thing to do at every point in this film, and that option is always available. Andrew isn’t sensible. Andrew is obsessed. Andrew was obsessed before he ever met Fletcher.
So Andrew and Fletcher want the same thing: they want Andrew to be a great jazz drummer. The movie isn’t about Andrew’s struggle against his abusive instructor. The movie is about Andrew and Fletcher’s struggle to realize Andrew’s greatness.
So who is against Andrew’s greatness?
“Dying broke and drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 is not exactly my idea of success.”
Andrew’s dad (Paul Reiser) does not understand Andrew’s struggle. The dad represents the common view that greatness is overrated. In his view, Fletcher is unambiguously a bad man who is hurting his son. Andrew’s dad is there to comfort him when he flees the stage at the end of the movie. “Good job,” his hug seems to say. “You did okay. Don’t let that mean old Fletcher get you down.”
And then Andrew turns away, mounts the stage, and melts everybody’s face.
So who is our antagonist? Who is against Andrew? Who is undermining him in his struggle?
His dad is the antagonist.
“Okay,” I hear you say, “Maybe. But you have to admit Fletcher’s behavior was over the top.”
Do you think Andrew would have achieved his goal through normal means – either without a mentor or with a kindhearted Mr. Miyagi version of Fletcher? If you watch the film carefully, Fletcher only uses tools and techniques of incentivization that actually serve to make Andrew more focused and dedicated. Which is what Andrew wants. Andrew needs somebody who takes this music thing as seriously as he does. He needs somebody to legitimize (“enable”) his obsession. I can imagine a Bizarro-universe version of this film with a Fight Club-esque reveal at the end where Fletcher is shown to be nothing more than the personification of Andrew’s own relentless ambition.
Andrew needs Fletcher. He needs a mentor who understands him and will do everything necessary to help him achieve his goal.
It’s no surprise that this reading of the film is not a popular one. Our culture no longer appreciates the function of mentors. We are too egalitarian: everyone is equal, so how can your mentor be better than you? We are too sensitive, too narcissistic to accept the humility required of being mentored.
(“Graduate school” is code for “weird, intense, slightly unhealthy mentor-mentee power plays and motivation mindgames”. Who do you think loses out in grad school – the student who strives and feeds on the pressures of the environment, or the student who is “above” needing to work too hard and resents the stress?)
Greatness is hard. Greatness isn’t even necessarily good. I don’t want to see anybody die of a heroin overdose at age thirty-four. But then again, don’t we value the products of that sacrifice? At least this movie forces us to ask ourselves that question.