Before you sit down to watch Whiplash you should think about carbing up. Seriously, take an energy bar, down a few bottles of Lucozade and main line some caffeine because Whiplash is one of the most exhausting films you’re likely to see. But like any good exercise its rewards are extensive and stunningly good for, if not you, then certainly cinema.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a first year jazz-drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York. Practicing late one night he finds himself being watched by renowned conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who soon invites him to be an alternate in his studio band. Before long Andrew has risen to first choice drummer but Fletcher is a tough taskmaster and believes in pushing his students to their absolute limit in order to be the best they can be. Does Andrew have the fortitude and ambition to stay the course?
Writer-director Damien Chazelle has created a film nothing short of a masterpiece in Whiplash. On the surface there’s a hint of a sports drama, a tale of the ambitious young upstart forcing his way into the majors to become a contender. There’s even montages aplenty to keep the analogy going all that much further. But Whiplash is so much more than an underdog story. It is a story of two opposing forces clashing, rutting and banging into each other with such ferocity you worry the screen might crack under the pressure.
On the one hand you have the monster that is Fletcher; a man who will put an arm around you only to use your inner most insecurities against you. On the other you have young Andrew; a kid with such focused and desperate ambition to be the best he’s willing to let love, friendship and potentially family fall by the way side in order to be remembered long after he’s left this mortal coil. But even that undersells it, because while Fletcher is the devil incarnate Chazelle has the foresight to occasionally inject just a smidge of humanity into him. At the same time Andrew comes across all admirably driven but Chazelle refuses to let him off the hook too easily, instead allowing us to see more than a hint of Fletcher in him. If anything these two characters are not so much at opposite ends of the spectrum but a couple of generations apart in their careers.
Watching these two men bounce off each other is one thing but Chazelle’s direction is mesmerising in its execution. His slow, imposing camera moves perfectly heightening and juxtaposing the hyper-kinetic energy of the jazz music on offer. You wouldn’t imagine a film about jazz could have you gnawing your nails to nubs but that’s exactly what happens here. It’s edited in such a way to put you among the drum kit, sensing every beat, wiping every bead of sweat, every drop of blood from your face in awe at what you are witnessing.
As Fletcher J.K. Simmons is worth every bit of his Oscar. It’s a powerhouse performance with Simmons instilling such venom and bile that you will quake in fear every time he’s on screen. Imagine if Simon Cowell, with his tight t-shirts and high waistline, was somehow spliced with Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and Godzilla. He’s easily one of cinema’s most imposing and terrifying characters to not be in a horror film. But where Oscar got it wrong was in not recognising Miles Teller for his role in this combustible on-screen chemistry. He brings a sense of blinkered drive and determination to Andrew, an ability to go to-toe-to with Fletcher and, while he may lose a few rounds, land more than his fair share of hits. It’s that you buy so completely into Andrew’s journey that Whiplash works and for that reason Teller has once again marked himself out as one of this generations most exciting young talents.
Like the title implies Whiplash is going to leave you reeling like you’ve been in a car crash, but once that adrenaline kicks in you are going to be addicted.