Monday, March 23, 2015

Portrait of a Corporate Psychopath: How J.K. Simmons Nailed It in Whiplash

I recently watched Whiplash, starring Miles Teller (as young jazz drummer Andrew) and J.K. Simmons (as Fletcher), and it occurred to me that Fletcher—a bullying, narcissist, manipulative music instructor—is a straight-up psychopath.

I read a bunch of reviews about the film, and there are plenty of reviewers who believe, as I do, that Fletcher is personality disturbed. But many other reviewers don’t, or don’t see the relevancy to the story.

Well, of course a character’s psychopathy is relevant to the story. We can barely make sense of the story without it. ‘Nuff said about that.

I’m more interested in why some reviewers didn’t recognize Fletcher as a psychopath to begin with, because it reminds me how difficult it can be to see behind the psychopath’s mask in real life. And in real life, we need to see behind the mask, or we risk becoming the prey of these warped shits.

What Makes Psychopaths So Hard to Identify?

 A few things.

First, psychopaths are very good at mimicking normal behavior. No doubt from a very early age, the psychopath recognized he was different from others and began taking pains to hide his differences. (Note: Children less than 18 years cannot be diagnosed as psychopathic, as no tool exists for this purpose. However, the true psychopath has been troubled from a very early age, if not from the womb.)

Second, while statistically many of us may know a psychopath, we haven't have enough interaction with him to evaluate or witness his true nature.

Third, most of us have no idea how to identify psychopathic behavior even when we do see it. People who spend significant time studying psychopathy are generally physicians with a particular interest in abnormal psychology, criminologists, sociologists, writers of true crime, fans of true crime, and those who’ve been burned by a psychopath, in which case your curiosity is likely more of an obsession. (I'll let you guess where I fall in this list.)

Fourth, most of us accept people at face value and have something in us that practically renders us incapable of believing bad things about others, especially those closest to us, like our spouses, siblings, parents, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Fifth, human beings are biased, and our biases can blind us to unpleasant truths about others, even if the truth is staring us in the face. For instance, we tend to equate intelligence and physical beauty with good moral character, even when we know it’s irrational to do so.

All of these factors can cause us to be vulnerable to the psychopath and especially the corporate (or subclinical) psychopath, because the workplace has its own rules about acceptable and unacceptable behavior that often hinder the detection (and more importantly) dismissal of psychopaths.

Oh Fletcher, You Devious Monster, You!  

(Warning: MAJOR spoilers coming …)

Simmons’ performance is Whiplash is phenomenal. He earned his Oscar and then some, in my opinion.

And while a few have criticized the script for its alleged holes (such as not providing the viewer with enough insight into Fletcher’s motivation), again I say, what’s there to understand? The man is a psychopath. How do I know? From the script of course.  

Signs of Fletcher’s Psychopathy  

Telltale Sign #1. After inviting Andrew (and by the way, Miles Teller is awesome as Andrew) to join the band, Fletcher tells him that practice starts at 6:00 AM sharp. “Don’t be late,” he warns Andrew.  

Andrew oversleeps, waking up at 6:03, and then rushes to practice—only to be greeted by exactly no one. At first, we think this is Fletcher’s way of making his word his bond. After all, 6:00 AM is 6:00 AM.  

But then we learn (from a sign posted next to the rehearsal room door), that practice begins at 9:00 AM. Anxious, confused, and desperate to be in the band, Andrew waits. Practice starts promptly at 9:00, and Fletcher never says a word to Andrew about the discrepancy.  

Why not? Because he’s a flippin’ psychopath, and psychopaths like to mess with people’s heads for fun. By telling Andrew the wrong time and having him sit for three hours without a damn clue (“Did Fletcher leave because I was late? If so, is he coming back? Did Fletcher intend to spend some quality time with me, and I blew it? Did I hear wrong? Was this all some weird game?”) Fletcher exercises his dominance right off the bat. Sicko.  

Telltale Sign #2. During a break in practice, Fletcher casually asks Andrew about his mom and dad. Andrew tells Fletcher that Dad is a writer and then corrects himself—well, he’s really an English teacher—and Mom left when Andrew was a baby.  

Later (but not much later), Fletcher openly, loudly, and cruelly berates Andrew for not keeping time, and then takes the whole thing up a notch (which hardly seems possible, but he does it) by taunting Andrew about his Dad's "failed" writing career, which caused Mom to leave, because who wants a loser? (And let’s just forget that by Fletcher’s own logic he’s a failed musician. Doesn’t matter. Psychopaths are skilled at making the illogical sound logical—at least at the time.)

Unfortunately, psychopaths are also skilled at taking small bits of your personal history and twisting them into something ugly and shameful and then throwing the whole stinking mess in your face when you’re feeling vulnerable. For kicks. Folks, this is not normal behavior. If someone ever does this to you. Stop and think. Please.  

(By the way, this is why you should never tell your psychopathic coworker ANYTHING, no matter how benign, about your personal life. If at all possible, he or she will find a way to hurt you with the information, trust me.)  

Telltale Sign #3. Fletcher’s upset about something, but we don’t know what. Later, a teary-eyed Fletcher tells the class he’s just learned a prized former student died in a car accident.  

But, surprise! Fletcher is only telling part of the truth. The student, we later learn, hanged himself.  

Now ladies and gents, who the hell lies about something like that? Through tears? A psychopath, that’s who. Psychopaths are masters of half-truths and outright untruths, and they lie about crazy crap, all while feigning sincerity.  

We’ll later learn the former student's parents blame Fletcher for driving their son to depression and suicide, but even that’s no explanation for Fletcher’s lie.  

You say, well, Fletcher felt guilty so he shaded the truth. 

Really? Would a normal person shade the truth at a time like this and in that manner? I don’t think so. A normal person with a case of the guilts might neglect to mention how the student died, but he wouldn’t make up an alternate story to cover the truth.  

However, a psychopath would, because a psychopath is (a) twisted and (b) incapable of taking responsibility. And this inability to acknowledge any fault leads the psychopath to extraordinary lengths, such as lying about something most of us would find sacred.  

Telltale Sign #4. Fletcher loves to divide and conquer. In his quest to screw with Andrew’s head, he plays all the drummers against each other, forcing them to compete in the most dysfunctional of ways, even while manipulating each of them to curry his favor.  

Again, I gotta hand it to J.K. Simmons. He played his part to perfection. But Damien Chazelle, who wrote the script, deserves his credit, too.  

Not only does Fletcher abuse, he drives the students to distrust and abuse each other in the foulest of fashions. If this isn’t an accurate portrayal of the psychopathic leader, I don’t know what is.  

Psychopathic leaders destroy teams. Show me a team characterized by backbiting, backstabbing, tattle telling, gossip, distrust, and fear, and I’ll show you a leader who's either personality disordered or severely character disturbed.  

Telltale Sign #5. Psychopaths have rigid personalities. They typically don’t learn from mistakes, and no matter how much time passes or what their behavior costs them, they don’t mature emotionally or morally.  

So, praise the Lord, Fletcher’s employer finally has enough of him, and Fletcher is “freed up to pursue other opportunities.” Unfortunately, even after everything he’s been through, Andrew doesn’t grasp that Fletcher is evil and initiates contact.  

(Bad, bad idea. If Andrew knew what I knew and ran into his former mentor at say, an industry-related panel discussion, when said mentor greeted “Andrew” with a fake smile and a “Hey, look who’s here!” Andrew would have strode right past that bitch him with a cold, quick “Hello” and then gone on about his business.)  

Andrew and Fletcher sit down for a chat, and Fletcher invites Andrew to play in Fletcher’s new band, because the current drummer “isn’t cutting it,” but not before Fletcher begins reminiscing about the past and says he only did what any extraordinary teacher would have done to push his students to excellence. When Andrew asks Fletcher whether there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, Fletcher says no.  

Like a true psychopath, Fletcher manages to turn a vice into a virtue while demonstrating by both word and deed he’s learned nothing from losing his job (not to mention everything that proceeded that event) and that he’s back to his old tricks (i.e., divide and conquer) by playing Andrew against this new, unnamed drummer. Will Andrew see what’s what? Or will he take the bait and subject himself to Fletcher’s abuse one more time?  

Sigh. What do you think?

(By the way, Miles Teller likened Whiplash to a horror movie. I’m not sure I understand, but at this point in the story I was tempted to scream, “Don’t do it Andrew! Don’t listen to Fletcher! It’s a trap!”)


Hollywood psychopaths generally get what’s coming to them, one way or the other.

Real-life corporate psychopaths, however, are usually more fortunate.  

However, I don’t advocate spending one’s time fantasizing about heaping coals of revenge on the head of the corporate psycho, although I get it.  

Instead, I recommend getting the hell out as soon as possible. The only way to get lasting revenge on the corporate psychopath is to live a rich, happy life doing what you enjoy surrounded by the people you respect and love. Psychopaths, who are envious of everyone, hate that.  

As for Andrew, some say he got his redemption. Others disagree. I believe he did but at tremendous cost.  

But that’s the way with psychopaths. Engagement with them almost always comes at a cost. They are takers, abusers, and users. 

That’s why it’s best to stay away if you can.  

Oh, and one last thing.  

If you’ve been the target or victim of a corporate psychopath, don’t let anyone minimize your experiences. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: some people just love to defend the indefensible. I’m not sure what their deal is, but I don’t care and neither should you. You don’t need a medical license to know when someone is behaving badly, and you definitely don’t need a medical license to know when someone is hurting you. You just don’t.


  1. Thank you so much for your thorough analysis. I wrote my own review of Chazell's film, which I see as a controversial and ambiguous work about Psychosis, rather than a tribute to jazz music. Also, I think there is a Faustian theme within the film (Andrew accepts the perverted logics of his Mephistopheles in the end, by joining the power games that will maybe consecrate him as a musician, but will see him die as a human soul).
    Anyhow, my opinion is that this is a very dangerous film, on the ideological level, since its themes are not really explored as they should be, and the final dramatical perdition of Andrew is not really showed as a moral tragedy, but rather as an artistic triumph.
    Most of the spectators let themselves be caught in the same trap as Andrew, and they finally conclude that Fletcher's cruel logics is a truthful and winning one.

    I have watched the film with exactly the same eye as you (I am also aware of the manipulative techniques of psychopaths) and therefore thank you from the depth of my heart for trying to open the eyes of people about such an important topic.

    1. You're very welcome, and I'd love to read the review you wrote -- if it's not too much trouble, please share the link.

      In the meantime, I'll be digesting your comments, which are awesome. So now I wonder if Chazelle MEANT to create a psychopath, or did creating the most awful character he could conceive leave him with the portrait of a psychopath, sort of by accident? Either way, I'm intrigued by your assertion that the film being "dangerous." I hadn't thought of it that way, but I see what you mean. Some "wins" aren't worth the loss of your soul. (Although I can't blame Andrew for wanting some revenge.)