“Thank God I’m not great at anything.” That was my first reaction to the heart-pounding, gut-churning, nausea inducing film Whiplash. This film about a first-year drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller) at a music conservatory is the most intense film I’ve seen in years. This musician/mentor relationship is more mind-games than any standard suspense film in recent history, including last years, Gone Girl.
This is no Mr. Holland’s Opus. My friend Britani and I sat in our chairs, bodies so tightly wound that by the end Britani commented she felt like she’d spent the day at the amusement park. And what a wonderful roller coaster it was.
J.K. Simmons is superbly cruel as Fletcher, the strict Jazz teacher who decides to “mentor” but really torture Andrew by bringing him into his advanced jazz studio class. Simmons is best known for his role as the father in Juno, a kind and compassionate man. He also does the voice of the caring and Zen mentor, Tenzin, in Legend of Korra. Whatever sweet, fatherly feelings people had for him will be wiped clean by his manipulative nature in this film.
Teller, as the driven and compulsive student, is brilliant. He learned the drums in 6 weeks in order to play the part. The bloody band-aids ripping open to expose fresh wounds from practicing so hard aren’t actually real but the emotion that comes out of his performance made a believer out of me.
There are few scenes outside of the practice room but one scene with Andrew’s dad and family friends is superb. As the other parents with two boys close-in-age to Andrew praise their sons for their accomplishments in sports, they completely dismiss Andrew. Anyone who studied liberal arts in college will know the feeling of a people thinking the major is a waste of time or a cute hobby. But Andrew puts them in their places using the new cutting words and put-downs he learned so quickly from Fletcher.
At one point Andrew asks Fletcher is there is a line that gets crossed where a teacher is no longer getting the best from a student and is instead breaking them to the point they no longer want to pursue greatness. His response: A person with true greatness would never be discouraged. And they share a knowing head nod. While Andrew’s dedication to his craft is admirable, he forsakes his health, family, friends and any romantic possibility to achieve that level of perfection.
Most human beings will never come close to understanding that desire for perfection or the possibility of being the best. I for one never had the stomach for it. Do all artists really have to be starving and suffering to be great?
There are only really two jazz songs played throughout the film, Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” They are broken down in small sections as the drummers play the same part over and over and over again trying to get it right. The free-flowing and relaxed idea most people have of jazz is beaten out of the viewer with every beat of the drum.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle wastes no scene or piece of dialogue in his first full-length feature film. The characters are clearly defined immediately and the pacing is breakneck. Chazelle manages to take our perceptions of what a Coming-of-Age story looks like and flips it by blending it masterfully with a taut character study and the essence of a psychological thriller. Whiplash more than deserves its Best Picture Oscar nomination. It deserves to win.
Have you seen Whiplash? What did you think of the film?
Whiplash is still playing in theaters. Find out where it’s playing near you and go see it now.