Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
I know that Terence Fletcher wouldn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about any kind of critique of his performance or his teaching methods. So we’ll keep this between us, okay? I don’t want a chair thrown at me, thank you very much.
In this surprisingly emotional and powerful musical drama from Damien Chazzelle, Miles Teller has grand ambitions of becoming one of the world’s elite jazz drummers, and J.K. Simmons’ unforgettable Fletcher has every intention of breaking those dreams into teeny, tiny little pieces. A maestro he may be, but he’s also the kind of authoritarian who prefers breaking the spirits of his pupils (and occasionally the odd instrument or piece of equipment) as opposed to fostering an environment of nurturing. He is made all the more terrifying because there is method to his madness; he knows exactly what he is doing to anyone who dare step foot inside his practice room. Fletcher is a bully who takes pleasure in scaring his students, but he is no anarchist.
One of the great things about Whiplash is the amount of time you’ll spend trying to figure out whether or not he’s a sadist. He wants to push his students to a higher place, but of what does he know about limitations on that front? Given the amount of blood, sweat and tears his players regularly and literally lose during practice, evidently not much. Everyone’s favorite Farmer’s Insurance agent imbues this character with an intensity that almost seems to come out of left field. In addition to bulking up substantially for the role, he draws upon the cumulative strength of an entire career’s worth of emotion and energy. Never before has J. Jonah Jameson seemed like such a harmless and movable object. (R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman had better watch his back, too.)
While Simmons’ is the performance that arguably makes the movie, it’s the behavior and conceptualization of one particularly talented and ambitious student that matters more, though that’s not to downplay the younger actor’s performance. What Teller has been able to accomplish here to break from his days of Project X and the like is nothing short of thrilling. (Mostly because of the fact it means I probably won’t have to resort to reviews like these anymore.) Here he’s not exactly lovable but he is leagues more defined as an individual rather than the booty-chasing cretins he’s portrayed up until now. The fact Teller has grown up playing drums certainly lends itself to his most matured outing to date.
The driving beat of this thriller-esque drama — yeah, jazz drumming and adrenaline rushes, whodathunkit? — picks up notably after the pair’s first encounter. The film opens with Andrew, isolated, practicing meticulously on a small kit in a room at the end of a deserted hallway. The harsh clashing of drumsticks against the toms reverberates methodically and certainly rhythmically as well, but there’s more aggression and urgency presented before we even see anyone on screen. He’s interrupted briefly by a fairly imposing-looking dude with a jet black shirt and a perfectly bald head. The man demands to see what the kid can do, and after a few seconds of appearing moderately entertained he just as abruptly exits, leaving the exhausted Andrew to wonder what that had all meant. For a fleeting moment at least, we are Andrew. We have to think this will not be the last time we see this man.
This teasing is not the subtlest way of introducing tension, but for Whiplash‘s purposes it works, since the last thing the film wants to give the impression of being is passive. Indeed, this is a film that will not submit itself to audience expectation; if anything it is the other way around, and we must submit ourselves to the whim of the terrifying and brutal jazz conductor who demands absolute perfection of his students. And we must submit ourselves to Andrew’s unwavering devotion to become more than what he currently is, even if that is a perfectly acceptable human being who may be a bit stubborn at times.
On the merits of committed performances, Whiplash earns a passing grade. Better than that, it’d easily earn (okay, maybe not easily) the approval of the world’s toughest jazz instructor. There’s no way J.K. Simmons can’t look back on what he’s laid down here as one of the proudest moments of his career. It is a little anticlimactic, then, coming to realize at the end that we could have seen this scenario play out this way from the beginning. It’s not a predictable screenplay as much as it is a walk through familiar hallways, a more emphatic way of cautioning the difference between self-improvement and self-destruction.
All the same, Whiplash‘s ability to sock the viewer in the gut with two riveting performances is more than enough to warrant a recommendation.
Recommendation: The biggest draw for this film hands down is the performances. If you have been a fan of either Mr. Simmons or Mr. Teller for some time, you have absolutely no excuse to put this one off. But if it’s music you are into, you are equally responsible for your own sense of having missed out if you don’t check this one out and pronto, as it probably won’t hang out in theaters for long. Narratively, this is not the most creative thing out there, but this is an acting showcase. And what a beautiful one at that.
Running Time: 106 mins.
Quoted: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”
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