Re-watching Whiplash: Is Andrew Neyman’s Best Comparison Travis Bickle?

The brutal Jazz thriller about one monster creating another, but was Neyman predisposed to be one in the first place?

In preparing for the podcast this week I found myself doing a deep dive into the most obsessive characters in movie history. Not OCD, but a focused obsession on an idea, a person, or a thing. The goal was to find a comparison for Miles Teller’s character (Andrew Neyman) from Whiplash. When discussing the film, I find a common mistake people make is labelling Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) the villain and Neyman (Teller) his victim. Make no mistake, Fletcher is a monster from the get go, but when you compare Andrew Neyman to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, if the shoe fits, he quite possibly is one as well.

From the beginning of the film Damien Chazelle frames Andrew in a way that makes him feel remote, isolated and alone. Often surrounded by negative space, Andrew is a loner, who spends more time with his thoughts than with other people. In fact, nearly all of Andrew’s interactions with other people are negative. Early on in the story this seems to come from a lack of social skills and struggling to relate to people, but from the moment he reaches studio band a change starts to take place.

In setting Andrew up for the torture that will be his training, one of the first things Terrence does, is get Andrew to say “he’s here for a reason” and you can tell Andrew believe’s it too. From this point on, the seeds have been planted for Andrew to take revenge on a world that didn’t recognise his greatness. From belittling his cousins at the dinner table, to unemotionally dumping his girlfriend, a growing superiority complex is like putting keroscene on the fire of the Andrew’s limited emotional intelligence. We see this both directly, when he yells the line “Fuck off Johnny Utah, turn my pages bitch,” and subtely, as he looks down his nose at a drummer, busking on the street.

It’s this mix, of an obsessive quest for significance and a growing superiority complex that I think make Andrew and Travis such a good fit. The main difference being that Andrew has a skill through which to channel his lust for greatness. Whereas Travis is forced to improvise to get the adoration he so desperately desires. Neither Travis or Andrew make any effort to hide their disdain for the people around them, only Andrew doesn’t have time to take action on it, because of his studies.

By the third act of Whiplash, considering what we’ve seen, we really have no business cheering for Neyman as a character. If he was a person in your everday life, you’d probably go out of your way to avoid him. And this is where J.K. Simmons really shines. Only through Andrew’s willingness not give up against his tyrannical opposition do we find our empathy for Neyman’s plight. Because J.K. is so devastatingly sadistic, we’re able to frame Neyman as a kind of victim, whereas the truth is that they’re really two opposing generals fighting the same war. Fletcher is simply the more experienced strategist of the two.

Not since The Dark Knight (2008) has a flawed hero benefitted so much from the presence of his villain. The sheer unrelenting nature with which the two go at each other is reminiscent of the active role the Joker played in the 2008 blockbuster. When shooting Fletcher, Director Damien Chazelle does everything he can to emphasize Fletcher’s presence as a monster in the shadows, using the camera and lighting to cast shadows over Simmons’s gaunt face making him look positively vampyric at times. J.K.’s Performance is masterful in its stillness as well as in its rage, with every psychological twisting of his knife bringing audible responses from the audience.

Through Fletcher and Neyman’s conflict and the relentlessly active nature of both, Whiplash mercilessly keeps tempo until the final frame of the film, making it a joy to rewatch on any occassion.

For more takes than you can poke a stick at tune in to listen to me and my co-host Matt Lausch have break down Whiplash in detail and from as many peculiar perspectives as possible on the latest episode of our podcast: Netflix and Grill, currently streaming on SoundCloud and Apple Podcasts.