Whiplash – 2014
Writer and Director Damien Chazelle
Starring J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
If you are looking for the inspirational story of the year, this is not it. If you are looking to see a movie about justice, it is not this film. Whiplash is almost unidentifiable in nature, in that the motives of its principle characters go from a long brewing quest for perfection to defeat. Then it moves to a quest for revenge, and then just when you think you’ve seen the last turn, something happens that has to be experienced firsthand to conceive.
Andrew Neiman (Teller) is a young student who has been accepted into Shaffer Conservatory music school. It’s a good gig if you can get it, but better when you have gotten there at a relatively young 19 years of age. He has an encounter with revered Conductor Terrence Fletcher (Simmons) that puts him on edge. A few days and more awkward encounters later, he’s in Fletcher’s band. Normally, one would think a promotion is a good thing. He soon learns otherwise. Fletcher is an ass who likes to likes to berate, belittle, threaten and attempt to hurt his “students” when they try to “fuck up” his “band.”
Andrew stubbornly refuses to give up, working on his drumming to the point of creating a perpetual wound on his hand and calling it off with his relatively new girl friend. The strategy pays off as he wins the lead spot on drums. Very soon, though, Fletcher is playing with him again, pulling up an obviously inferior drummer from JV to challenge him. This sends Neiman past the edge, to the point where he walks away from an accident to claim his spot on drums while concussed and bleeding profusely. Fletcher tells him it’s just not working and he flips.
Up to this point in the film, there is nothing but frustration for the viewer. Simmons does an excellent job portraying the instructor that no one would ever want to have. No single work of art or sport is worth the crap that Fletcher puts his students through. It’s not like their lives depend on it. His vision of his own importance makes one wonder what it is that those who can’t teach can do.
Teller, for his part, is magnificent. He is every messed up kid who ever had a dream he chased to the point of foolishness. The contrast in the relationships between, his girlfriend, his father and Fletcher give a 360 view of a young man in transition. It’s the second best lead performance this year, behind Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler. He shows more intensity in this film than he has in all of his other films combined.
Nevertheless, I was feeling a bit empty towards the last act. This feeling is definitely intended, as those who stick it out will find. The last 15 minutes are remarkable. Still, I am not sure how I feel about the journey of the characters. The feelings Simmons’ evokes and provokes with his powerful performance are all over the place: rage, fear, sympathy and then rage again.
There must be some praise, though, for the writer and director Chazelle. It’s the most adventurous journey a screenplay has taken in some time. His skill and talent are right in line for a remarkable run. Let’s hope he doesn’t get sucked up into making superhero films right away.
If you hate overwrought and horrible teachers, you won’t like how this movie ends. If, however, you are in pursuit of perfection, like Andrew and Fletcher seem to be, then you just might get it and – quite remarkably – smile.
(***** out of *****)