Whiplash ReviewWhiplash (2014) Director: Damien Chazelle 107 Minutes/ Rated R ****½ (out of 5)
Whiplash Review – “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” This phrase is spoken towards the end “Whiplash” by the intense music teacher Terence Fletcher, and I can’t think of a better way to capture the feeling of what has transpired. “Whiplash” is an extremely smart, lighting quick character study anchored by two towering performances, one by J.K. Simmons as Fletcher, and the other by Miles Teller, portraying jazz drumming prodigy Andrew Neyman. Neyman is enrolled at the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the country. He works diligently on his craft while trying to attract the attention of Fletcher, who is the leader of the vaunted studio band at the school. In order to do this he pushes himself both mentally and physically to the absolute breaking point throughout the film. Fletcher conducts this band much like a dictator would, constantly belittling and harassing the members in the group. There is a lot to be said about the idea of suffering in the pursuit of art, and “Whiplash” embraces this mantra wholeheartedly.
The performances of Teller and Simmons are absolutely stunning, as both give the best work of their respective careers. I would not be surprised to see both nominated come Oscar time. I can’t pretend to be an expert on jazz or jazz drumming, but by my untrained eye Teller did a phenomenal job playing/pretending on the drums. I am sure that some camera tricks were used, but Teller continually impressed me with his command of the sticks. As the film works primarily as a two person character study, there is not much room for anybody else to populate the screen. While Teller does have a few nice moments with his father played by Paul Reiser, and his girlfriend played by Melissa Benoist — these sections do no have much bearing on the final outcome of the movie. “Whiplash” is most electric when Neyman and Simmons are on-screen together, which is thankfully the majority of the run time.
There are major themes of obsession and extreme compulsion as Neyman begins his quest to become the drummer he has always wanted to be. Fletcher is a master of manipulation, and he uses Neyman’s naivete against him. Early in the film we, along with Neyman, are seduced by Fletcher’s ability to calmly soothe the ego of the young drummer. We very quickly realize that this is all a ruse, solely for Fletcher to get into the mind of Neyman, and then systematically tear him down over and over. The portions of the film set inside the starkly wooden studio that the band practices in are among my favorite in the film, as we are treated to a fascinating battle of wills between our two main characters.
While “Whiplash” does have a lot in common with many other sports films, things are handled much differently and distinctly here. I was taken aback by how laser focused the film was in its viewpoint of the characters and the city. In just about any other film set in New York City, the city would be used almost as a character in and of itself. Here, we are not privy to any cliché wide panning shots of the city that are so common these days. The focus is almost solely on Neyman as he quickly builds himself into a nervous wreck trying to please his instructor. Another aspect that I found myself focusing on was the editing, which took on an almost free-floating jazz-like form as the film went on. It is a hard thing to try to explain, but this film feels and looks different from any other I have seen this year so far.
The final aspect that I want to discuss is the music, which is outstanding throughout the film. Neyman is a superb drummer, which is plainly obvious to anyone who watches him play. Which is why it is so jarring to watch Fletcher continually berate and destroy Neyman’s playing, this also brings up the idea of the ends justifying the means. The quote at the beginning of the review is extremely important in understanding the insane levels that Fletcher goes to in order to inspire his players to be the best they can be. He believes that one must suffer to truly be a great artist. I’m not sure that I agree with that sentiment, but it certainly does seem to get results sometimes. The film builds up to a frenetic crescendo that is almost transcendent in its power to thrill and entertain. I was literally on the edge of my seat towards the climax, and I’m still thinking about the last shot of the film several days later. This is surely one of the best films of the year. Do yourself a favor and go see it if you get the chance.
Jeffrey IrvineLife in Cinema