Review: Whiplash (2014)

Music isn’t really the point of Whiplash, even if the film is about jazz drumming at a top notch New York music conservatory and the title serves in part as a reference to the Hank Levy standard of the same name. Nor would I, untrained in the art of drumming and a novice jazz fan, be able to offer a proper assessment of the film’s portrayal if it were. What I do believe Whiplash offers up is a battle of wills, a psychological game between two men in pursuit of something that they believe to be perfection. It’s a bracing, at times disturbing, film that chases illusion alongside its characters to its unexpected, satisfying ending. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a freshman at the fictional Schaffer Conservatory, who aspires to be a great drummer. One day while practicing at school, Andrew attracts the attention of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher and conductor at the school with a reputation for both greatness and the ferocity with which he drives his students. Because he is looking for a new drummer, Fletcher invites Andrew to sit in on the studio jazz band practice. During the practice, however, Fletcher verbally abuses Andrew, throwing a chair at him, and drilling him on tempo by slapping him in the face. His motivational techniques seem drawn straight from the R. Lee Ermey school of instruction. Simmons is perfect for the role of a musical drill sergeant, relishing his delivery and imbuing Fletcher with a real dominating presence, stopping just short of chewing through the scenery. (His J. Jonah Jameson was a highlight of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films, and something that is missing in the more recent films. It’s nice to see the reliable supporting actor get an opportunity like this.)

Yet, rather than become the story of a put-upon hero who must overcome an abusive monster, instead Whiplash becomes the story of two equally obsessive and monstrous figures. Rather than walk away, Andrew takes Fletcher’s abuse as reason to devote himself even more single-mindedly to practicing the drums. He beats the drums until his hands are bleeding, trashing his own kit in frustration. Earlier in the film, Andrew has a “meet-cute” with the girl at the movie theatre, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), asking her out on a date and showing some humanity. Yet, Fletcher’s influence spurs Andrew to abandon both her and even to pull away from his supportive father (Paul Reiser), in the pursuit of...what exactly?

Andrew hopes to be one of the jazz greats, like his hero, Buddy Rich. As Fletcher tells him in one sequence, the logic behind his “enhanced” motivational techniques is that he will spur someone on who has the ability to be the next Charlie “Bird” Parker; he tells Andrew the story of how Bird had a cymbal thrown at him that almost decapitated him, which subsequently spurred him to give a glorious solo at a later time. Fletcher believes that what he is doing is necessary. It’s not enough to be supportive; as he states, he believes that “good job” are the two most harmful words in the English language, leaving people satisfied with the little they’ve accomplished. Fletcher is willing to sacrifice a few pupils on the altar of accomplishment.

Both Fletcher and Andrew are fanatically devoted to this idea of accomplishment and glory. The film plays as a kind of twisted romance, where both Fletcher and Andrew court each other, first showing attention, then verbally abusing each other. At one point Andrew even tackles Fletcher to the floor in anger. Eventually the film draws the characters together in a finale that I completely didn’t expect. However, the ending works very well in the context of bringing the relationship between the two characters to a climax, even if by the end the film has lost interest in any other aspects of the story.

It’s fitting that the film’s structure follows the single-minded obsession that Fletcher and Andrew share, winnowing down the story to its core. Chazelle tries to mirror the drum-like jazz beat of the film, filling scenes with quick cuts and staccato-like impressions of the environment. But ultimately the film is about the performances of the two leads, Teller and Simmons, and the film lets these performances stand out. In the final scene of the film, the cinematography makes it clear that they are the only characters that matter, in their minds and in the filmmaker’s.

Whiplash isn’t ultimately a cautionary tale, but rather an expressionist portrait of obsession and psychopathic devotion. What that means is that the film never couches Fletcher’s abusive tirades or twisted philosophy in comforting affirmations that it is ultimately wrong. Instead, the increasingly feverish, over-the-top pace of the film is what communicates the film’s stance. Whiplash allows us to see for a moment what the culmination of a fixation might look like, and even if its at times frightening, it’s also exhilarating.

8 out of 10

Whiplash (USA, 2014)

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist.