JK Simmons & C.J. Vana in "Whiplash"
DIRECTED By: Damien Chazelle
WRITTEN By: Damien Chazelle
PRODUCED By: Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster & Michel Litvak
DISTRIBUTED By: Sony Pictures Classics
RATED R FOR STRONG LANGUAGE INLCUDING SOME SEXUAL REFERENCES
by Jeremy Goeckner, Head Reviewer
The Two Most Destructive Words...
Miles Teller in "Whiplash"
Make no mistake about it, Whiplash is a masterpiece. No, it's not going to be remembered the same way that Citizen Kane or Casablanca is, but this movie is simply mesmerizing. And it's not just because of the two gut-wrenching performances at the center of the film. No, this a film that gets under your skin because you simply can't believe the action that is unfolding before you AND because at the end you are seriously asking yourself, "Could that evil, evil man be right?"
Maybe that's why Damien Chazelle's tale of music school mayhem hits so hard. This doesn't have to be a music school to occur in, but undoubtedly the school's specializing in traditional high art forms are more fertile grounds for these types of actions. I went to school for music myself and while I can't identify with the particular kind of psychological turmoil that happens in this film, I can attest that these students and teachers are just simply a different breed of human.
The film takes place at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music and centers on a young jazz drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller). We open the film on Andrew practicing hard in a room by himself. It's easy to see from these opening frames that Andrew is a hard-worker when it comes to his field of study. This is important to note because he is soon joined by the enigmatic jazz band conductor Terence Fletcher. Fletcher puts Andrew through a couple of very quick drills with no emotional feel at all and just as quickly as he appeared, he dissapears, leaving a bewildered Andrew to continue his work.
This scene is important because it sets up the insane complexity that is Terence Fletcher. Throughout the first 15 mintues it is impossible to get a read on him. You feel there is something dark and evil lurking beneath the surface but he puts on enough of a good exterior that you doubt your own intuition. After Fletcher comes to Andrew's first year class and swipes him to the big time of the studio band, we get a seemingly tender scene between the two where Fletcher asks all about Andrew's family. This air of kindness is about to be utterly destroyed.
During the Studio Band rehearsal, we fully glimpse the anger inside of Fletcher. After making each trombone player play separately to weed out the out-of-tune player and subsequently kick them out, Fletcher turns his sights on Andrew. As Andrew continues to struggle to get on the same tempo as Fletcher, the situation boils over into a nightmare as Fletcher throws a chair at him. But the fun doesn't stop there. Fletcher continues the torment by slapping Andrew on every 4th beat of a 12 count to see if he can tell if the slap is "rushing" or "dragging" the tempo. And if that wasn't enough, he makes Andrew yell his frustrations over letting his conductor down. It's a brutal pyschological scene that Simmons simply owns leaving the audience in utter shock.
The mental torture is carried out by Feltcher in increasingly brutal ways until Andrew finally proves himself enough to be the first drummer. But even that honor is quickly stripped away and boils over by Andrew attacking Fletcher on stage in performance, leading to Andrew's explusion and, as a direct result of his complaints against him, Fletcher's dismissal from the school as well. The two meet sometime later at a jazz bar where Fletcher seems to have learned from his mistakes and invites Andrew to play in a prestigious jazz showcase. This leads to one of those film conclusions that simply HAS to be seen. It's breath-taking cinema that leaves a big impression when it's all done.
This movie is built on two power-house performances from Simmons and Teller. Simmons has been racking up on the awards circuit and rightfully so. His portrayal of Fletcher is a rare look into the mind of a man with one singular goal that will not apologize for how he gets to it. Simmons has long been a staple character actor in Hollywood, turning in solid but small performances in big-budget blockbusters like Spider-Man and charming indie turns like Juno. But this is the kind of no-holds-barred performance that leaves the viewer wanting to revisit all of his past work. And I encourage you to because he has long been one of my favorites. It's really refreshing to see him get this much praise.
But seemingly left behind in all of the awards season hooplah is Miles Teller. Until now known mostly as the deuchey party guy character, this is the performance that is going to open many other kinds of roles to Teller, who I suspect has some Tom Hanks-like versatility inside him. Just watch the scenes where he plays so long and hard that he makes his hands bleed or where he's rushing to try to make it to a performance on time. These scenes show a commitment and ferocity that all the greats have. I think Teller might be on the cusp. If a performance like this can't get a nomination, I can't think of one that can.
Now most critics of Whiplash say that the antics Fletcher employs would never get this far and this guy would be bounced so quickly his head would spin. After all, it's not like he's just letting loose his dark side now. He'd have to have been at this for years. But understand this, when your grade and your future prospects depend solely on what this teacher thinks of and says about you, I think anybody would be surprised at what they would put up with. But even that is not what is motivating Andrew and Fletcher.
After the attack, the two are talking in a jazz club. Fletcher reveals to Andrew that the reason for his tactics is that he is looking for the next great player. He doesn't want good, he wants the best. And the only way to achieve that is through the fire, and he has no time for false praise to be politically correct. As he puts it himself, "The two most destructive words in the entire world are, 'Good Job'." And it's here where we hear that little voice in the back of our head asking, could he be right?
Andrew feels this as well. He talks often about wanting to be the next Charlie Parker; the next legendary drummer. And it certainly seems from the last three shots of the film that both Fletcher and Andrew find their answer, but maybe, just maybe, Fletcher is right. That greatness isn't given, it's earned. And even if the process is nearly unbearable, do the results make it obsolete? Perhaps it does, and that is the true genius of Whiplash. Say what you want about its believability, but it makes a hard impression and doesn't let you go for a single moment of its run time.