From second time director Damien Chazelle we get the “dark” sequel to Drum Line that I always wanted. Whiplash been universally praised by critics and audiences. With such praised flicks like this I’m sometimes a bit let down as they’re often just well made crowd pleasers. Whiplash is certainly not that.
Miles Teller’s Andrew Neyman is a drummer at the best music school in the country. J.K. Simmons gives a career best performance as Terence Fletcher, his brutally honest and questionably motivated teacher. Whiplash is a blood painted portrait of the price it takes to succeed. Is there a line at which you should stop pushing someone? When should one quit?
J.K. Simmons hurls out insults like a machine gun. No, like a cannon. Chazelle’s directing is laser focused (to a fault) and makes what could simply be just tense scenes into one’s about human beings at odds while working towards the same goal. The back and forth between Andrew and Terence is the film’s driving force and a propulsive rivalry. Trying to figure out Fletcher’s aim is one of the luxuries the character offers and Simmons plays Fletcher’s cards close to the chest. Usually I can’t get into the hardass mentor that pushes the protagonist to achieve perfection. It usually feels overly macho I just don’t ever fully buy into it. Simmons says “fuck you” and bludgeoned me into buying it.
Whiplash is entirely devoted to a single perception of success, which is its best aspect, and also it’s nagging flaw. Surely drumming is not always THIS MACHO and THIS HARD. It’s sequences outside of drumming feel a tad film schoolish and thin, but in the music and moments with Andrew and Fletcher, Chazelle orchestrates a goddamn symphony. The story lacks dynamic elements to broaden its scope of success and power, but it’s focus on “hard work” is laser focused and exciting.
There’s a relationship with Andrew and a girl that I felt needed one more scene to fully work. There’s also a few plot points, which are exciting as hell, but felt contrived to be intense. Still, the film managed to quickly pull me back in every time it slipped up because it is a fiercely directed firecracker of a film.
Whiplash plays like a drum solo itself. The camera jumps all over the room like a piece of music. We’re shown blood and sweat on the drum sets. Close ups of faces are instruments themselves revealing emotions. The tension reaches high cinematic levels more than once. I let out an “Oh shit!” at one point. The final 10 minutes is among the best filmmaking I’ve seen this year. Just purely awesome shit from Chazelle and co.
The editing cuts like a scythe as Andrew walks the brutal path to success. Fletcher stands guard at the gates as the drum reaper. Andrew walks down the plank towards unknown certainty of success. Each step he walks into tormented obsession towards his goals and begins to question them.
It’s a story done with class and precision. There’s moments that just scream “CINEMA” in bright flashing lights. I wish the film played up the psychological aspects more, and diverged from it’s single focus, but the brutality of the film is enough for it to reach greatness at points. The image of Andrew’s hand bleeding as he plunges it into water captures his desire to reach transcendence as an artist.
There’s always one film out of Sundance that everyone champions. Last year it was the great Short Term 12. This year it’s Whiplash. I approve of the hype. This is Teller’s best performances thus far. Simmons is a serious Oscar contender and I will have his character seared into my mind for some time. Chazelle’s direction is laser focused and fierce in the musical scenes. The levels it does work on are absolutely nailed down with a sledgehammer. Chazelle elevates most of the scenes to be more than just a conflict. It’s a ridiculously entertaining rivalry about dedication to art. I’m not even that interested in music, but this film drew me in and I enjoyed the hell out of it because I’ve experienced similar things that Andrew has.
Grade: B+ The films singular focus is sometimes too narrow and the script has a few contrived plot points, but it’s a fiercely impressive film and the two lead performances are among the best I’ve seen this year. Whiplash is a vicious and potent story of the road to success. A road that few enter, and those that do rarely make it to the end.