Whiplash is being praised as one of the best films of 2014, and while I think it’s a long way from that, what really does redeem the film – which is yet another version of The Red Shoes – is J.K. Simmons’ performance as a ruthless teacher driving a gifted student to the breaking point in the pursuit of “perfection.” Simmons has been a deeply underrated actor for a long time now, working in numerous commercials, the Law & Order franchise, and many other supporting roles. Like any truly great actor, he makes all of this seem effortless – you instinctively believe him, whether he’s playing a police psychologist, or a rabid neo-Nazi, or the gentle pitchman in the Farmers Insurance advertisements. In Whiplash, he has his first chance to stretch out and tackle a really big part, and the shocker for me is that he’s being considered only as Best Supporting Actor in the upcoming Oscar derby; he’s really the star of the film.
Of course, as a journeyman professional, who’s seen and done so much work in his career, Simmons would modestly refute this, but it’s nevertheless true – the film simply would not work without him. Perhaps someone with the range of Stanley Tucci might be able to tackle it, but consider what would happen if someone specializing in traditional bombast had taken the role – it just wouldn’t be as effective. And yet in Simmons’ capable hands, a truly monstrous music teacher becomes both real and genuinely frightening, with depth and resonance, rather than delivering just a one-note performance. So this film is really worth seeing chiefly because Simmons is in it; and he should certainly win the Best Supporting Oscar, whatever that means, for his work in Whiplash – but mind you, he’s the star of the film, and not a supporting player.