Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Runtime: 106 Minutes
Original UK Release: 2014
Whiplash tells the story of aspiring, self-taught drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), who attends Shaffer Conservatory, proclaimed by many as the finest music school in the United States. He is taken under the wing of the infamous Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the schools most highly regarded conductor, and is placed within his class with the opportunity to prove himself worthy of being one of the best. Quickly though, Andrew realises that Fletcher’s capability of getting the most out of his students extends to his quick temper and low tolerance for failure. Andrew is faced with physically and emotionally crippling challenges that begin to break him down and force him to question who it really is that he wants to be.
Much the antithesis of last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, which placed its leading character in a position of being a perfectly capable musician, but both unable and unwilling to assert himself as anything more than that, this deals very much in the space of optimism that the Coen Brothers left bare. Andrew is someone who wants to be the best that he can be from the outset, and he seems more than capable of being able to achieve such a feat. But the crueller price that Whiplash takes with this in hand is that it is something that must be earned, and though the world will be cruel and push against you it must be fought against in order to make you stronger.
This attitude of battling endurance is treated in the bluntest of manners; Fletcher will berate and assault the spirit until it breaks, not because he wants you to fail, but because he wants you to succeed beyond expectation. Fletcher may be positioned as the antagonist for a majority of the movie, but he himself is a man at war with his own ambitions. Whether or not his means justify the ends by the story’s climax is something that can only be subjectively decided, but the ride that it takes the audience along for is felt with every single blow.
Simmons casting as Fletcher is nothing short of perfect in its judgement. J.K. has constructed an entire career around the ability to exude anger, and Fletcher is the beacon of boiling mercury that he has seemingly been waiting his whole life to play. The very look of Fletcher, from his barely fitted t-shirt and jacket combo of soul-sucking black to his withered and fissured facial features, is nearly iconic. This is a remarkable, commanding, hilarious and utterly terrifying, lunatic performance that could be remembered for years to come.
Teller also delivers wonderfully in his a star-making turn that makes Andrew a thoroughly routable and identifiable protagonist for anyone who’s ever struggled to find their way without parental guidance, or even consistent support. The beauty of the small cast adds to the focus, but the shame falls on the uncharacterised and underdeveloped female role in the form of Andrew’s girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), who appears with promise but later disappears from the plot. But this is a film about men, doing manly deeds and striving for approval from each other, with Andrew even making the argument that there really isn't much room or time for her in this particular story.
Damien Chazelle’s first feature film as both writer and director, the screenplay for Whiplash came about as a side project for him while he became stuck working on another script – and the process of personal critique and the never-ending struggle for perfection excellence is beautifully represented in this story.
The impeccable screenplay treats both of its characters with the fair and equitable treatment that they both deserve; dense with strife, emotional discord and their own personal and professional obstacles to overcome. No line is out of tune nor a scene out of place in a fairly traditional tale of wunderkind, but it is told with such feverish energy and strict conduct with its arrangement that it comes out as one of the most formalistically and structurally sound pictures of the year.
This is refined and encouraged thanks to a fantastic visual eye that is both shared and realised by the director, editor and cinematographer. The film sparkles with a wondering yet present frame that hovers in and around both characters with extreme scrutiny, knowing just when to back off and just when to close in for the kill. Compositions and cuts placed in correlation with the tremendously well-fashioned sound design and soundtrack give the scenes of drumming and beating an intense and hectic excitement and pain that that burns up the viewer and makes you sweat and break with every second that Fletcher prolongs Andrew’s trying torment.
Whiplash is a simple tale that is told exceedingly well. While maybe not a ballad to the genre, or possibly even the medium of music itself, it is something to be celebrated when a film of this quality can be so efficiently well produced and pitched without the intention of appealing solely to a single audience. It’s a thrilling drama which drives such catharsis into every success and minor triumph that when the credits roll you’ll feel like you can run a mile – a spry and captivating feature that already looks set be one of the standout efforts of the year.