Neiman wanted to join Fletcher’s band. It was the best in the school and he wanted to be a part of it because he wanted to be the best jazz drummer ever. “I’d rather die drunk and broke at thirty-four and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at ninety and nobody remember who I was,” he once says to his father.
After he works immensely hard to get Fletcher’s attention, he is finally able to join the band. On the first day, we get a long, heartwarming conversation between the two of them. Fletcher asks him questions about his past and his family. He’s as nice to him as we can expect any teacher to be. Smiling, encouraging and caring.
We, along with Fletcher, learn that Neiman has a father whom he first refers to as writer. Then he changes his profession, with a tinge of embarrassment, to that of a teacher when Fletcher asks what he has written. We learn that Neiman’s mother had left his dad and him when he was young.
As the film progresses, we understand Neiman’s character more deeply. He has many unresolved mental issues. Neiman’s relationship with his father is not one filled with respect or admiration. He doesn’t look up to his father like a normal child from a normal family. He spends time with his father because he pities and feels sorry for him. I believe one of Neiman’s worst fears is that he would grow up to be like his father. To him, he was a loser who could neither become a famous writer nor have a loving wife.
The conversation is followed by the famous chair flinging scene. Fletcher moves his face deep inside Neiman’s comfort zone, after almost throwing a chair at his face, and breaks him down mentally and emotionally with his words. Words derived from the data he collected during the conversation.
The entire film unfolds in a similar manner. We see Fletcher talking to a little girl with a lot of affection and kindness, making both us and Neiman hope that Fletcher still has humanity and love left in him, only to be followed by a scene where he again destroys Neiman with his words. We see Fletcher, with tears in his eyes, talk about one of his students who died recently, only to be followed by a scene where we learn that the student committed suicide out of the immense pressure and emotional trauma that he was made to undergo under Fletcher’s tutorship. This constant shift in perspective is traumatising to Neiman. He is filled with self-doubt and uncertainties. The only way he knows how to deal with it is by working even harder, which is what Fletcher wants him to do.
This makes Whiplash one of the best psychological thrillers I have ever watched. We, as the audience, are kept in the dark when it comes to Fletcher’s life and past. We only know as much as Neiman knows and this is what makes the film so affecting and emotionally damaging to so many of the viewers. We get a personal experience of Neiman’s descent (or ascent?).
After ninety minutes of our undivided attention, the film only wants to ask us an age-old question: till what point do the ends justify the means?
The film doesn’t give us an answer. Like all great films, it only makes us think. Fletcher, towards the end, again plays with Neiman’s mind, making him believe that he actually wants to give him a chance in his new band, only to destroy him, again, by giving him the name of a different song than the one they were actually playing.
Neiman leaves the stage and this time, both us, the audience, and his father hope that he leaves Fletcher once and for all. He doesn’t. He comes back up to the stage and starts playing again, but this time with rage. However, Fletcher seems to be encouraging him now – but do not forget the enormous number of times he has played with his mind. Who’s to know he won’t be the same abusive teacher again?
Neiman probably did give one of the best drum performances that day. He probably does become the next “Bird”. He probably did end up being the saviour of jazz, but after all he has gone through and will probably continue to undergo, is it really worth it?
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.