Dir. Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Whiplash: Think Karate Kid crossed with Full Metal Jacket crossed with Black Swan. With drums. And J. Jonah Jameson.
Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), an introverted young drummer who attends the best music school in the country; he joins a studio band under the command of J. K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher, a belligerent, despotic bully who degrades and torments his students if they dare to give him anything less than perfection. Our protagonist’s arc is one of abuse, both external and internal, as he pushes himself – and allows himself to be pushed – far beyond breaking point, sacrificing personal relationships and well-being in the name of pursuing some vague and illusory idea of ‘greatness’. A bit like what I’m doing. This is a visceral, intense film; it’s a masterful exercise in using classic character-based conflict to build tension to unbearable levels, so that when the release finally comes, it drives right through to the centre of your brain and stays there well after you’ve left the theatre, like a bullet from this loaded handgun that I keep by my bed, just in case it all becomes too much for me.
Given the character-driven nature of the movie, it stands to reason that the majority of public and critical discourse surrounding the movie focuses on the two lead performances. For starters, Simmons is hypnotic; he’s completely brimming with energy, half the time capturing a kind of quiet, simmering menace – which is like watching a ticking time bomb – and explosive, terrifying aggression – which is like watching… well, an exploding time bomb. It helps that the script gives him some great lines (‘If you deliberately try to sabotage my band I will fuck you like a pig!’ – Yeah, that line even got a few laughs in the theatre, which I think adds to the overall effect; never underestimate the discomforting power of dark comedy), but the power that he lends to them is undeniable. Half the tension in the film is crafted solely from his performance. He’s like that teacher we all had – you know which one – who would ask you a question with no real right answer, where you know you can’t win because no matter what you say you’re going to get yelled at, and you just kind of want them to get it over with, which doesn’t matter in the end because they still make you shit your pants in fear. Man, fuck that teacher. And his weird animal fetish.
Playing off him is Miles Teller, who is absolutely incredible. The chemistry between the two is one of the principle reasons this films works so damn well; their arc isn’t your traditional master/student dynamic, wherein they learn from one another, using the growth of their relationship to overcome their own personal demons. The two collide more than connect, and with each collision there is collateral damage, damage which Teller brings to life in a career-defining performance. Ignoring his performance would be criminal, no matter how tempting it might be to allow Simmons to dominate the conversation. Matching his co-star’s effusive performance with one of subtlety and nuance, Teller is an absolute joy to watch – he conveys this sense of real depth and tragic humanity that’s both damn engaging and yet almost difficult to watch.
The real, hidden star of Whiplash is writer/director Damien Chazelle. The script is tight, economic, dramatic and nuanced; the plot twists and turns in a way that feels unpredictable and yet still organic. Every time the narrative shifts direction, it never feels cheap or forced – it all works to a definite momentum, a building sense of pressure which is as real for the audience as it is for Neyman himself. Of course, cinema is dependent on execution, and Whiplash is executed like an eighteenth century French aristocrat. And I don’t mean messily. Making character pieces cinematic is difficult to pull off at all, let alone pull off well – and Chavelle pulls it off like a master. He knows just when to whisper and when to shout; when to quietly engage the audience with subtle editing and cinematography, and when to explode with intense visceral imagery (the bloody hand entering the ice water, for example). The editing, while subtle and deft throughout most of the film, becomes absurdly fun to watch when the major set-pieces kick off; Chazelle eschews the ‘invisible art’ philosophy (i.e. normally you can’t ‘watch’ good editing, much less enjoy it) to create sequences that are as tight as a drum (sigh), with blistering pace and whip-like precision (Seeing as Chazelle was a drummer before becoming a filmmaker, it comes as no surprise that he paces each shot and cut with musical timing). As I said before, the film is a masterclass in building tension – complete proof you don’t need life-or-death stakes to put the audience on the edge of their seats (and it’s often to a movie’s detriment when they assume threatening to blow up the world is going to make people care… *COUGH MAN OF STEEL COUGH*).
I can imagine people having some moral problems with the conclusion, with respect to how it presents ‘greatness’ and the methods required to reach it, and that’ll probably provoke some great conversation later on down the line; nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that this is a near-impeccable film in terms of craft – a film that hits you so hard it’ll give you Whiplash… sigh. Just go see it.