Whiplash (2014)

27 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When you really think about it, that determined quest to be “one of the greats” in whatever field or craft is kind of disturbing, because you have to wonder how far that person going for it is willing to go to prove to be “great?” At what point is the line drawn? This can make for an unnerving story, because any artist is going to feel that kind of pressure and maybe even ponder about whether or not it’s worth it. Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” decides to go for it. Here’s a film about the progress of a budding musician executed with the intensity and tightness of a thriller. This easily could’ve been a feel-good story about a mentor pushing his student to the limit and both learning a lesson in a happy ending. But no—this film has a major, upsetting twist on the mentor/student relationship that makes it horrific and yet captivating.

They say with power comes fear, and that’s especially true with Terence Fletcher, played powerfully by the always-reliable character actor J.K. Simmons in probably the best performance of his long career. Fletcher is the orchestra instructor from hell. He runs his band with the intensity of a drill sergeant (hell, he’d probably even make R. Lee Ermey’s “Full Metal Jacket” character piss his pants!), always pushing his students to their full potential so they satisfy not only him but also themselves. But his methods are beyond unorthodox, in that the best ways he can think of to get through to these people is with bullying and sociopathic behavior.

The latest victim of Fletcher’s teachings is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller, very good), the film’s protagonist. Andrew is a 19-year-old Manhattan music-school student who loves drumming and yearns to be one of the great jazz percussionists. One night, his drumming gets the attention of Mr. Fletcher who overhears him playing. First, Fletcher criticizes him, causing Andrew to first lose hope, and then strive to get better. He does earn a spot in Fletcher’s jazz band, where he learns from Fletcher’s teaching methods head-on.

Due to a teacher’s tough approaches, the student is challenged to understand his full potential in order to achieve his goal of being “great.” Someone once said artistry can redeem any subject matter, and even with old cinematic resources such as this central premise, it’s what is done with the narrative that makes the film what it is. And “Whiplash” doesn’t use predictability or fabricated sentiment or even a true bond between the two characters outside of the practice room (save for one scene later on, but even that’s more a way of challenging wits). It doesn’t even end the way I expect it to; it ends on a note that can be read as either tragic, triumphant, or even both. The bottom line is, “Whiplash” is not an audience-pleaser; writer-director Damien Chazelle is more concerned with telling a cautionary tale and a complex story about obsession and impulse than giving viewers what they want from a story like this. Instead of cheering Andrew on as he becomes a better drummer, we feel pity for him as he beats himself up more and more trying to become “the best,” even when the blisters on his hands bust open and bleed as he practices or even performs live.

What really keeps the film’s audience on edge throughout the film is that anything could set Fletcher off. He could seem like a nice, understanding person to talk to, but all of a sudden, he could turn on a dime and become a sadist who will chew you up and spit you out. You’re always left guessing what he’s thinking and also what it would take to cause him to act this way again. It’s when he acts nice that I get chills while watching this film. And then, at the end, when he reveals something to Andrew and it’s too late to turn back, I was so nervous for this kid that the film had my undivided attention for the remaining final act.

J.K. Simmons deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar-time. His Fletcher portrayal is a powerhouse performance; one of the best I’ve seen all year. Any actor who can act in such an effective, unpredictable manner must be recognized. “Amazing” doesn’t begin to cut it when describing Simmons’ work here. He, along with Teller and Chazelle, helps make “Whiplash” a vibrant, riveting film that I won’t forget anytime soon.

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