I had spent almost an entire year waiting to see Whiplash since it made big waves at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Derived from director Damien Chazelle’s 2013 short film of the same name, Whiplash is one of the most anxiety/aggression-driven films I have ever seen. From the opening drum rudiment that increases in tempo to the dynamite performance of Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” that closes out the film, Whiplash both figuratively and sometimes literally does not miss a beat.
The film follows first-year jazz student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), whose aspiration to become a great drummer is encouraged when accepted into instructor Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) advanced studio band. Having previously witnessed Fletcher’s frank teaching conduct, Andrew proceeds with a cautious positivity. But nothing can prepare Andrew for the supplements of Fletcher’s presence, which includes injury, embarrassment, and, above all, rage. With Andrew under Fletcher’s radar, the limits of his own human capital are tested as he pursues drumming perfection.
Much like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Whiplash is a cautionary tale of the high demands required to attain perfection. Whether it is ballet or jazz, there is a fine line between success and failure. Both sides of this idiomatic line are displayed in Whiplash, as Fletcher manipulates Andrew into an overstrain of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Basically what I’m saying here is that the film is a great study of psychology by way of how character motivations are uncovered and heightened with aggression.
Oh, and have I mentioned yet that Fletcher is perhaps the scariest character I have ever seen on film? That’s right, a band instructor sits right up there alongside the possessed Regan “Pea Soup” MacNeil from The Exorcist (1973) as one of the most frightening cinematic portrayals.
You remember Simmons’ performance as the hothead J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy? Well here Simmons takes that persona of eternal anger and frustration to a whole other level. There’s a great reason why Simmons swept the Best Supporting Actor category at many of this past year’s award ceremonies. Just like the character he portrays, Simmons’ acting ability is a force to be reckoned with. But while I can go on about Simmons and his memorable performance, there is another performance in the film that I don’t think gets enough credit.
Teller does a fantastic job in the role of Andrew. If you have a film that centers on an abusive relationship, there needs to be convincing enough actors on both sides of the relationship, unlike a certain recent release on everyone’s mind. Yeah, I’m looking at you Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). Through Teller’s dramatic rendering of a troubled protagonist, I didn’t so much feel like a helpless witness as I did a truly engaged participant. Such a feeling of empathy is what great movies are all about.
Whiplash is the kind of music-filled film that understands the inner workings of both music and film. Above all, the film understands timing. Because music is the expression of sound and video is the expression of vision, time is a sort of bond that can make or break the combined experience. I was impressed with how Whiplash took this into account through brilliant editing that complimented the syncopation of jazz music.
Sometimes it’s fun not knowing the running time of a movie because the duration can loom over the viewing experience. Of course bad movies will get you thinking optimistically about the running time as a means of a finish line. But you know (probably after the fact) that you are glued to a great movie when you have no regard for the running time. Whiplash is the kind of film that distracts away from time through the acts of sight and sound. Usually regarded as “invisible editing”, this sort of filmic storytelling respects the art of the filmmakers and the escapist intrigue of the audience.
The main impression Whiplash leaves is one of great intensity and I will admit that it left me exhausted, but in the most positive sense of the word. The film is such a well-crafted exploration of the turbulence brought on by the side effects of perfectionism. One minute it suspends you in thin air and the next it drops you like an anvil. Though, perhaps most importantly, its ending is one of the most satisfactory conclusions I’ve seen in recent memory. I dare say my wait to see Whiplash was well worth it.