Damien Chazelle's Whiplash forces you to stew in a murky grey place between disgust and triumph. When talented young drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) enrols in the fiercest music conservatory in the country, Shaffer, he meets Conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons), an infamous professor who is obsessed with creating the conditions for achieving greatness.
Chazelle's film really sneaks up on you. It's loosely based on the writer/director's own experiences and what resonated most with this reviewer is that I was most certainly able to flashback to the Fletcher's of jobs and sports teams past and present. Sometimes the insults and the barrage aren't the things that squeeze the life out of you, it's the lack of certainty; those moments where you're sure you're going to be crucified, only to get a pat on the back. Or where the devastatingly deflating times where you think that you've succeeded only to be crucified for landing in a different time zone to what they'd expected. Chazelle's makes this even more affective by the continued sputtering and stalling of the entire orchestral team. In some moments you're spoilt with the wall of perfectly orchestrated jazz and then just as you're wanting more, Fletcher will interrupt. The lack of perfection will be something that you're forced to endure. Again and again Teller's Andrew is forced to repeat the same section of percussive beats, attempting differences that essentially barely register; that is until they do. Chazelle then makes you the obsessive perfectionist; it's a necessary infuriation.
Miles Teller has really never been better as the self destructively obsessed Andrew. While everyone, and rightly so, focuses on Simmons, it is watching Teller surrender to having his softness, and his ego stripped and chipped away. Simmons' Michaelango chips away all of the Andrew’s protection (granite) to find his David. Glutton for punishment doesn't quite cover it. Teller will pay pounds of flesh and sweat to work toward his dream. He'll destroy relationships with his family, burgeoning relationships; Teller's Andrew nails that almost masochistic lure of being able to exist in the favour of this kind of figure. When you are trying to explain it you find yourself sounding more and more insane.
Whiplash draws you into a human experiment. Andrew is the subject and Fletcher is the mad scientist manipulating him to achieve magic. Channel drags you into constant peril. In the quiet moments at the beginning of the film Teller's Andrew is up late practising and exuding a radiant power as Simmons' Fletcher observes, and discovers his next potential virtuoso. What streams by in fleeting seconds may be one of the most telling moments of the entire film. It's in that first encounter that Fletcher sees a glint of what he's been looking for inside Andrew. In that quiet moment there was potential and as Fletcher exits, and once he invites Andrew to be a part of his group you can feel him concocting a plan to see if that slippery, occasional perfection can be squeezed into reality. It's the Full Metal Jacket approach to schooling; you want the students, like marines, to be wound into frenzy in order for them to deal with the inherently inhuman genius. There are so many insults that you know that people are going to quote and say again and again. There are too many to mention but the once that I think deserves mention is one that Fletcher says to Andrew at the end of one of his early tirades; "Are you one of those 'singled teared' people?!" However, that's the least of Simmons' Oscar winning brilliance; it's being able to somehow show the warmth between the black, glacial, tectonic plates before erupting.
Whiplash finds the perfect amount of discomfort between emotional abuse and artistic glory. It isn't a film you shouldn't be able to relate to; but if you do, despite all the reasons why it's wrong, your obsession will feel validated.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle Written by: Damien Chazelle Starring: Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist,
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.