Every once in a while, a film comes along with so much dramatic tension that it has the power to make you physically tremble. I’m sure you’re already certain of what the next line will be, and you’re right; Whiplash is that movie. Working as the sophomore effort from director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), this powerhouse of a character drama begins with what seems to be a simple and conventional student/instructor story with Miles Teller’s Andrew Neeman slowly escalating a pulse-pounding drumbeat. When he abruptly stops and looks in the doorway, we see none other than J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher, an apparent icon at Shaffer University, the best musical school in America, to which Andrew has just been accepted. From his first minute of screen time, J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise) indulges in his character and it wasn’t even fifteen minutes in when I realized that his character was one of the most fascinating in any movie I’ve seen all year. Simmons is getting an Oscar nomination, be sure of that.
Simmons’ Fletcher is an intimidating force, and the screenwriter (also Damien Chazelle, who wrote Grand Piano earlier this year) lets you know this from the first few minutes of the running time. Fletcher is a perfectionist, striving to get the best out of his students by using harsh, edgy, and sometimes destructive methods, sometimes resembling Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Class after class, performance after performance, he pushes his students to be the best they can be, and this takes its toll on everyone, especially Andrew. Not only because he is our main character, but because Fletcher has taken a special interest in him. Perhaps he senses greatness? It’s hard to tell with Fletcher, because J.K. Simmons plays him with such a mysterious aggressiveness that it’s hard to assume he finds greatness in anyone apart from himself.
Miles Teller is fantastic as Andrew and I say fantastic in terms of acting and drumming. At this point, I’m unsure whether Teller had to take training for drumming or if he’s been drumming his whole life, but every drum solo he gets in this movie is played with precision and skill. Even during his dramatic scenes (most of which conveniently take place behind a drum set) he is excellent. He proved that he can be more of a dramatic actor with The Spectacular Now last year, and this is just further proof of that fact. As J.K. Simmons is screaming in his face at the top of his lungs, Teller does his best to not lose control as he beats and pounds the drums harder, faster, and better. It’s in these scenes of musical desperation that cinematographer Sharone Meir has time to shine, as she captures gorgeously brutal shots of the sweat, tears, and blood pouring out of Teller’s body and onto his drum set.
Some people may dismiss Whiplash because of it being about a jazz band and the relationship between a student and an instructor. Is that what it is? On paper, yes. But when you see the film, you realize it’s much more than that. Because as the film progresses, this student/instructor relationship tale begins to have more in common with the best of psychological thrillers. Damien Chazelle’s script is thunderous, laying out conversation after conversation of depth, intrigue, and intimidation. Chazelle’s direction is magnificent, with every scene inside a music studio oozing the intensity of a battlefront. And really, that’s what this movie is about. It’s about the locking horns of Andrew and Fletcher, a battle of minds and spirits. Their interplay is some of the best of the year (acting and writing). Whiplash is a film of unrestrained dramatic power, the most dramatically explosive one I’ve seen this year, and one with a wonderful and cathartic finale that will move you. This is easily one of the very best movies of the year.
Whiplash (2014) 106 mins Rated R for strong language including some sexual references Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Follow Ben Lane on Twitter @benlanesreviews for more!