Writer/director Damien Chazelle (Grand Piano) made quite a deal of noise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with Whiplash, winning the top honors. Usually, the movies examine the angelic teachers, the ones we all remember fondly that broke through to us and cared enough to make a difference. This is not that movie.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a second-year student at a prestigious New York City music conservatory. He drums and dreams of being plucked from his class to the jazz band of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a renowned jazz musician with a volatile temper. He verbally berates his students, antagonizes them, belittles them, throws chairs at them, brings them to tears, and harasses them, but all in the guise of pushing their talents, pushing them out of being so easily coddled by their parents and an “everyone’s a winner” society. Andrew is elated to be asked to be Fletcher’s newest drummer but the pressure to perform, and maintain that level of perfection, eats away at him. Andrew eats, sleeps, and obsesses over being the greatest drummer possible, a pupil in Fletcher’s image.
I know very little about music beyond a simple “I like this/I don’t like that” delineation, but I was enthralled from beginning to end with the sheer intensity of Whiplash. Even though the film is something of a cinematic crucible, a hellish musical boot camp, a Full Metal Jacket for Julliard, it’s not caught up in the half notes and technical elements; this is a movie about two powerful forces coming into direct conflict. It’s a battle of wills, a struggle for dominance, and a character study about the potential drive it takes to be considered one of the living legends. The emphasis is on the characters completely, and the movie never drags (or rushes) with its cleanly arranged plot points as it reaches its thrilling conclusion, a final act that completely takes the experience to another level. It keeps switching gears and defying our expectations in the best way. Chazelle always seems to be one step ahead of his audience. We know that Andrew is going to alienate his girlfriend (Glee’s Melissa Benoist), thus causing acrimony and resentment on both sides, leading to a breakup hinging upon some question of priorities. We suspect it’s coming and lie patiently in wait, dreading that this predictable subplot will take away the focus of the film. And then Chazelle has Andrew sit down and break up with his girlfriend right then and there, citing the exact same chain of foreseeable cause and effect. Andrew sees where this story will head and wants to prevent further heartbreak. He nips this relationship in the bud, and his girlfriend is simply stunned at his blunt assessment (“You think I would prevent you from being great?”). It was at this point I knew Chazelle was going to deliver something not just special but downright masterful.
At the start it looks like the film is going to be a student-mentor study, and it does become this, though in a fascinating yet psychologically disturbing manner. The fiery and all-consuming passion of Fletcher infects Andrew, as he wants to be great above all else, including meaningful human relationships. He’s always been something of a loner who has difficulty keeping friends, made all the more evident by his uncomfortable and snippy Thanksgiving dinner with his family. His ambition is to be the best and he’s willing to sacrifice everything else. This paves the way for a character study of obsession, as we watch Andrew become a slave to his ambition, to the drive to always be better. He drums until his hands are calloused and soaked in blood. He gets a mattress in a rehearsal space, spending all of his free time on his obsession. He’s also battling for validation from Fletcher, whose approval will make Andrew feel like all those blood, sweat, and tears were worth it. The film raises some very intriguing and open-ended questions over the self-destructive nature of ambition. In one perspective it’s a story of perseverance and utilizing every setback, every humbling humiliation to push oneself further then what was possibly known. On the other hand, it’s about a young man who struggles for the unforgiving tough love of an abusive father figure who molds him in his image. Chazelle’s explosive finale also sticks with the ambiguity. It is no doubt an ascendant moment for Andrew but the implications are left for you to interpret on your own.
Primarily the story of two forces of nature, both Teller and Simmons, especially, give captivating performances that will blow you away. Simmons (TV’s The Closer) has been one of our best character actors for years on TV and film, but man does he just sink his teeth completely into his ferocious character. He’s truly terrifying to watch but you can’t take your eyes off him. Like the other characters, as soon as he enters a room you’re put on edge, wondering what he might say next, what might lead to the next tantrum of frustration and rage. Simmons is remarkable but especially in the way that he imbues his character with traces of sympathy (also thanked by Chazelle’s screenplay, naturally). Fletcher subscribes to the (arguably insane) philosophy that he has to constantly push his students or else they will persist on mediocrity. There is a method to his madness; he’s desperately looking for the next Charlie Parker, a legend in his midst that he can help mold thanks to his aggressive teaching techniques. He truly believes the ends justify the means and he is doing the world a favor. Likewise, Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) is awestruck by his professor’s rep but then desperate to regain that hallowed approval. Their relationship becomes poisonous and antagonistic and Andrew seems to be exhausting himself simply to prove Fletcher wrong. Teller is one of the most exciting young actors in Hollywood and his commitment to the character and his physical endurance is impeccable. It cannot be understated how thrilling it is to watch Teller pound away on those drums, especially during the finale where the energy level might just exhaust the audience as well (you do feel spent afterwards, in a good way). Part of Teller’s performance has to be with his style and precision of drumming throughout, and it’s amazing that he is able to convey different emotional states through a musical instrument. Teller is an effortlessly intuitive actor and his instincts are rarely wrong.
Shot in only 19 days, Whiplash is a rare film that feels blisteringly vibrant, coursing with an insatiable energy, powered by performances of intense dedication and with a script packed with bubbling conflict. It’s a small movie that manages to knock you off your feet, from the caliber of the performances to the caliber of the musicianship. I didn’t know if this movie could live up to the hype post-Sundance, and I was a little apprehensive at first, but I fell completely under the sway of Chazelle and his storytelling. The smooth edits, the clean connect-the-dots plot points, the room for ambiguity and nuance, the stellar final act, it’s everything a movie lover could ask for while still never forgetting to entertain. This is a powerful movie that packs many a wallop but also raises interesting ethical questions about the drive for accomplishment, whether personal attachments are hindrances, and chiefly whether the ends justify the means, especially if those ends could be considered cruel and abusive. Whatever the ends may be, see this incredible film, which just happens to be one of the finest of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A