Hype is a brutal fucker. Coming to Whiplash cold, it might be entirely possible to find it a fun, nervy little sudser about Type-A personalities clashing with lacerating verbal violence, done up in an appropriately hyper if not terribly innovative style. Coming to it, instead, with the knowledge that it’s pretty much a done deal for an Oscar nomination or five, my response is instead a baffled, almost hostile, Really? That? It’s satisfyingly ragey soap opera for boys (and there’s another whole conversation to be had about the critical reception of certain genres, backstage melodramas, say, when they are focused on males instead of females; especially in the the case of a film where there’s a grand total of one major character who is a woman, a totally generic girlfriend who could be cut out of the film entirely with only minor changes made to the whole. But that is not this conversation), and it has a real barnburner of a performance bringing the antagonist to life, and the setting in the high-stakes world of top-tier New York jazz conservatories is novel, if not inherently grabby. But there’s not much about it that’s terribly special: back in the ‘90s, when style-driven indies were easier to find than they are now, there were a dozen films like this every single year. Though I suppose the fact that it hearkens back to a more robust period in the indie marketplace is something.

Something of a dark parody of the stock inspirational teacher film, Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), New York native, son of a happily unexceptional high school writing teacher (Paul Reiser), and hellbent on becoming the greatest jazz drummer of his generation. To that end, he has managed to enroll in the highly competitive and prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, where his relentless after-hours practicing catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is the most celebrated instructor in the school, and the band he leads the most sought-after ensemble, but he’s also a verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive taskmaster, who has no mercy, forgives no mistakes, and has a seemingly bottomless well of imaginative cruelty to harass and push his students. Andrew has the terrible misfortune, or the great luck, if you look at it from a certain angle, to show the kind of promise that Fletcher has been hunting for his entire career, and thus the 19-year-old is subjected to the largest quantity of the bandleader’s dictatorial attentions. A bond forms between the two, but it is not an affectionate one; it is savage and relentless.

Points for bluntness of theme: without moralising one way or the other, Whiplash unapologetically claims that most of us are not special snowflakes, and that becoming exceptional takes a terrifying commitment that leaves little room for maintaining your humanity. And that’s a lot more honest and interesting than more of the usual “you can do it! whee!” boilerplate. It’s guilty of over-enunciating this idea, to be sure - it is spelled out explicitly in dialogue twice, once in a scene that works because of Simmons’s offhand delivery, once in a ghastly scene set around a dinner table that’s one of the most archly over-written things on offer in 2014 - and its commitment to not expressing an opinion whether the sacrifice of one’s soul is worth becoming a great artist does, at times, leave it feeling like it lacks a point of view or an overall purpose.

But then, the purpose is to be a corker of a two-hander, with Simmons spitting out the words of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s dialogue like a WWII bomber leveling a European city, and Teller managing just to hold on, which is pretty much all the script permits to the character for the first two-thirds or better. It’s a thriller at heart, which models itself after its protagonist’s frenzied drumming, building up in speed and collapsing and then starting off right where it left off. If the results are somewhat monotonous in tone, it’s not really fair to call that either a shortcoming of the movie, or a mistake: it is about single-minded people pushing themselves harder and harder and harder, so a certain single-mindedness and linear momentum is appropriate. The acting certainly falls in line with that - it is by far the most effective performance I have ever seen Teller give, in large part because it requires only a narrow range of expression - touching on the essential qualities of the characters without muddying them down with too much technique that would only tend to distract from the film’s overall momentum (it’s for this reason not at all Simmons’s best performance - perfect for the role, but a bit mechanical and too much on the surface - though I ‘m not going to begrudge him the Oscar nomination he has locked down for delivering it).

It is a sinewy film, all tensed-up and propulsive and alert, and while Chazelle relies a bit too heavily on close-ups of bloody hands and sweaty faces to put over the psychological cost of all that tension, the film's best moments (virtually all of them related to musical performance) are genuinely impressive filmmaking that suggest the first-time director's potential to do something great, though they're too conspicuous and isolated for me to credit that this is that great thing. The best scene, by far, is the last, which I hesitate to even describe (the entire edifice of the plot would disintegrate without the things it reveals about Andrew's mind, but it also feels anything but inevitable), but it's the one place where the editing, the camera angles, and the sound design - which is wonderful throughout, making the instruments and music active, physical characters alongside the people - are all working to create an excellent piece of physical cinema, hot and frenzied. The slower, more openly character-based scenes are a bit rockier; outside of his core duo, Chazelle has not deigned to give any of his side characters inner life, and this results in some strained, tedious places where Andrew is being fed lines by joylessly functional stick figures, and Teller screws himself up a little too hard to provide two characters' worth of emotion. But the good parts are very good, and the bad parts are unexceptionally mediocre, and even if it's nowhere remotely near the year's ten best films, Whiplash is an enjoyable potboiler with just enough insight into alpha male desire to feel like something slightly deeper.