Much like great music, Whiplash is very much a film with a kinetic beat. It moves with the even flows of an orchestra; beginning in a melancholy fashion but quickly builds with each passing moment until it climaxes in a blaze of intense and jaw dropping energy. It’s a very vibrant thriller that turns the typical tropes of music based films on their ears. This is not your standard exploration of a teacher/student relationship. Instead, it’s an explosive work detailing questions of success in such a cutthroat industry as well as a battle of wills and practices between two characters. It’s one of the best films of the year; I give it high praise given how many strong films have been released.
Set in modern New York, Andrew (Miles Teller) is an avid drummer attending one of the top music schools in the United States. He’s the complete opposite of his complacent father (Paul Reiser), a writer who let glory pass him by. Upon being discovered by respected teacher Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is invited to join the school’s jazz band of which Fletcher is the conductor. Andrew is apparently dismissed by Fletcher at first, but is cordially invited to serve as an alternate drummer. It is here that Andrew is exposed to Fletcher’s “questionable” teaching methods, which include complete verbal and psychological abuse in the name of perfection. Andrew soon realizes he has to work harder than ever to maintain his position, but the lines become blurred as to whether or not Fletcher is looking to either achieve Andrew’s true potential or to completely smother it.
Whiplash is very much a psychological thriller thematically and stylistically in the vein of 2010’s Black Swan. Director Damien Chazelle utilizes similar filmmaking techniques as well. There’s plenty of quick cuts and dynamic camera movements to uncomfortable moments, such as bleeding hands and saliva drenched clarinet reeds. These give Whiplash a dirty and tense mood throughout. The majority of the film is isolated into practice halls and solidarity for Andrew to descend further and further into “madness.” Andrew does not lose himself per se as the titular character in Black Swan ultimately does, but he cuts himself off from his family and girlfriend to practice. Due to these elements, the film makes for an excellent story of suspense.
The biggest strength of the film lies in the two lead performances by Teller and Simmons. Both actors find a perfect balance to their characters and play off each other terrifically. Andrew clearly has a drive and skill to match, but he’s never entirely overconfident. It’s an unsettling image when he see him play the drums until his fingers protrude blood, especially given how he’s a very introverted character. Teller’s frequently plays characters who are cocky and quick-witted so Whiplash serves as a great change of pace for him. The jury is still out on whether or not he is going to be a good Reed Richards in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, but questions about his acting chops have been put to rest with this film. J.K. Simmons makes an emphatic stamp on the upcoming Oscar race with his performance in this film.
The part of Fletcher on the surface would be an easy one to either overplay or fall into clichéd character traits. No matter how many horrid statements shoot out of his mouth or how many objects he throws, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. His ability to turn on a dime from an approachable music instructor to an enraged psychopath increases the tension in the movie. It’s almost as if you can see the fire burning behind his forehead. Fletcher may be one of the most memorable characters of the year and makes your most hated teacher look like a dream.
It is in the character of Fletcher where Whiplash provides poignant social commentary on teaching as well as striving for success. One of the most pragmatic lines in the movie comes from Fletcher when he states that, “There are no two words in the English language more dangerous than good job.” While his methods are certainly detestable and could be used to string him up on charges, he does raise a very interesting question. How far should a teacher go in order to bring the best out of his student? Are we living in an age where we suppress the drive for working hard, especially given such prizes as “participation medals?” The movie doesn’t provide an answer, but it’s a testament to the film that it does not feel like a shoehorned statement on the education system.
Beyond the two performances, Whiplash is a film that succeeds at almost every other aspect. The editing of the musical sequences perfectly synchronizes the suspense with the songs themselves. I won’t give anything away, but the climax provides more tension than any movie I have seen all year. I spent the whole film wondering how it was going to end and it carefully tiptoed around all of my possible conclusions. The film never writes itself into a proverbial hole; each moment and scene is carefully constructed to play into the subsequent one. For those wondering, the title comes from one of the compositions the jazz band practices and performs. It also perfectly sums up my viewing experience of being on the edge of my seat…often smacked around much like how Andrew is smacked by Fletcher.
Review – ‘Whiplash’