Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang
MPAA Rating: (for strong language including some sexual references)
Running Time: 1:46
Release Date: 10/10/14 (limited); 10/17/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 16, 2014
So many movies about talented, creative people take that talent and creativity for granted. We see people display their skills with ease to a thunderous, admiring crowd, and rarely do these movies take the time to allow us to see how they got there. Recall the old joke of how one gets to Carnegie Hall, and that is what's missing (It's likely no coincidence that the film's climax takes place in that famous venue). Whiplash doesn't take the process of honing one's talent for granted. It's all about practice. Here are the long, lonely hours refining a craft and the late nights rehearsing. Above all else, here is the passion that's necessary to devote a sizeable chunk of one's life to this process, even as the possible and probably unlikely rewards seem to get further and further away.
That alone is quite something, but writer/director Damien Chazelle's film is even more than that. It's also a study of the seemingly imperceptible line between genius and madness that examines how someone with genuine talent can flit back and forth over the line between the two without even noticing it.
At the film's core are two men. One is a student; the other is his teacher. Both possess the drive, and both have a kind of tunnel vision regarding their goals that eliminates all other concerns. The student, more than anything else, wants to be the best and is convinced he can at least achieve greatness. The teacher is convinced he is the best because, more than anything else, he wants—and will do pretty much anything—to bring out the greatness in the select few students whom he deems capable of achieving it.
They have the same aim: for the student to become the best drummer he can possibly be. They have a similar philosophy of how to reach that goal. The only difference between the two men, really, is in the inherent imbalance of power in their relationship.
The teacher doles out punishment as a way of teaching. The student knows he must take the abuse to get where he wants to be. The most lingering questions, which Chazelle smartly leaves only partially answered, are not only if the teaching style works but also whether or not the student wants to take the punishment. Is he a victim of abuse, or is he a willing participant in a relationship that serves both men's interests? Does the teacher do anything to the student that the student isn't willing to do to himself?
The terms "punishment" and "abuse" aren't used lightly. At least on the surface, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), the student, is punished and abused by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), his teacher. It comes primarily in the form of emotional or psychological abuse, but it occasionally is physical abuse. Before any of that happens, though, we meet Andrew as a student at a New York City conservatory. He has promise, and he also has a life. He practices but still makes time to go to a local repertory cinema with his father (Paul Reiser). He even asks out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the young woman who works behind the concession counter, on a date.
All of that changes when Fletcher (whose perspective we see in the film's opening shot—hanging back to watch Andrew set up his drum set and then methodically stalking toward him as the young man shows what he can do) chooses Andrew to be an alternate on the teacher's elite jazz band. Fletcher's method is methodical and succinct. His auditioning practice consists of listening to a bar or two of a student's playing, and that's if they're lucky. Sometimes he cuts them off after two or three notes.
Simmons is a prowling, ready-to-explode force in the role. Note how his Fletcher doesn't simply enter a room; he penetrates it, flinging open the doors and stomping to the focal point of the space. His attitude gives the impression that he would rather be anywhere else, and everyone there had better get with the program, lest he decides to deny them the honor of his presence.
It's in the rehearsal scenes, though, that we see how warped this man's concept of dedication actually is. He routinely insults his students using all sorts of colorful curse-word combinations and homophobic slurs.
Fletcher is cruel, and perhaps his cruelest moment comes from a pair of scenes in which he convincingly appears to drop his hardened veil to obtain personal information from Andrew, only to use it against his student minutes later. He scolds Andrew for messing up the rhythm of a piece by having him count to four and slapping him on "four." At one point, Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew's head, in an attempt to recreate an infamous incident in the rise of Charlie "Bird" Parker. Fletcher often recites that story of Parker's near-decapitation by a bandmate. For Fletcher, it's an example of good teaching.
The other great performance in the film is from Teller, whose Andrew takes the lessons to heart while resenting the teacher's impossible-to-please nature. Teller plays Andrew as a young man who is smart enough to know Fletcher's game but is too naïve to comprehend how far the teacher will take it.
For his part, Andrew goes as far as any reasonable person would and then takes the philosophy behind the lessons to their irrational end. He moves his mattress into the practice space. He drops anything that could be a distraction from his chosen career. He continues to practice and play even as open blisters rain blood on his drums in a ghastly rhythm. In one of the film's most informative scenes (especially as a way of tempering the film's climax), Andrew explains to his unimpressed family that greatness comes with the sacrifice of normalcy. The great ones may die alone at a young age, but the reward is that unimpressed families talk about these people at the dinner table.
This is Chazelle's sophomore feature, and there's a palpable sense of his need to tell this story that is thrilling (The impetuous way he shoots and Tom Cross edits the film's music scenes—with multiple angles of the protagonist, dolly shots whipping across the brass section, and close-ups of a snarling Fletcher—is particularly effective). It's bolstered by his screenplay's keen knowledge of and wisdom about these characters and the world in which they have chosen to live.
Whiplash comes to a natural endpoint, but that isn't enough for Chazelle. He allows us to see consequences for these two men, and even that isn't enough. There's a mounting feeling of dread as these scenes, which seem part of an ordinary epilogue, move forward. The resolution seems tidy, but consider how far these characters have taken their conflict—how much each has lost to obtain their goal. The greatest testament to Chazelle's accomplishment with these characters is that we dread what's still to come for them.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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