Film Review | Whiplash
What does it take to be the best?
It’s a question that all who strive to attain the highest levels of success ask themselves, and it’s a question that Whiplash – the superb sophomore feature from writer-director Damien Chazelle – poses in riveting, effective, and wonderfully ambiguous fashion.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, an ambitious 19-year old drummer who’s determined to become one of the greats. That’s led him to the (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, where infamous instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) presides over an award-winning jazz band. All appears to be going well when Andrew catches Fletcher’s eye and is promoted to his top tier ensemble. It’s then that the instructor’s verbal, emotional, and physically abusive teaching methods are made brutally clear, and as Andrew pushes himself to dangerous lengths to meet Fletcher’s demanding standards, the question for both mentor and student is how far is too far in the pursuit of greatness.
Whiplash is propelled by two award-worthy performances; following on from his excellent work in The Spectacular Now, Teller does a fantastic job of depicting both Andrew’s passion and fear. By connecting us with the character’s inner drive, he makes Andrew ultimately easy to root for even when his own actions get uglier. The drumming scenes themselves are also worthy of note, Teller (who has a background in drumming) convincing when Andrew is desperately immersing himself in bettering his craft.
The film undeniably belongs to Simmons’ instructor though, and it’s a memorable performance from the veteran character actor. Much like the band members who immediately adopt a militaristic stance when Fletcher makes a typically bombastic entrance, Simmons’ intimidating presence commands the audience’s attention every time he’s on screen. Always clad in black, Fletcher is capable of going from relatively calm to spouting vitriolic poetry in 0.2 seconds flat, and Simmons’ adept portrayal means you never know when the next outburst is coming. Furthermore, Fletcher could have so easily turned into an over the top cartoon but the combination of excellent acting and smart writing means that’s never in danger of transpiring. At one point, for instance, Fletcher remarks that “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job””. He’s not 100% wrong. He’s not 100% right. It is, however, 100% fascinating to think about.
Whiplash’s technical achievements are no less impressive. Chazelle’s clever direction and camerawork keys us in to Andrew’s psyche at all times, Tom Cross’ frenzied editing is precise and sharp, and Justin Hurwitz’s score is eminently replayable.
If there is one nit to pick, it’s that events become too unrealistic for a brief stretch, accentuating a recurring theme in a manner that’s a bit too on the nose. Regardless, with character beats as relatable and compelling as the musical beats are thrilling, and with a bravura finale that won’t soon be forgotten, Whiplash is a film that’s utterly deserving of all the plaudits it’s receiving. Watch at your earliest convenience.
Whiplash is out in UK cinemas on January 16.