Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Miles Teller, J K Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lane, Chris Mulkey.
When it comes time for critics to compile their lists of the best films of 2014, chances are Whiplash will figure near the top.
This is an intense but compelling drama about the blood, sweat and tears shed by an aspiring artist. Whiplash is an extension of the acclaimed Sundance Prize winning 2013 short film of the same name written and directed by musician turned filmmaker Damien Chazelle, and it was inspired by his own experiences in high school. Chazelle previously wrote the thriller Grand Piano, and his only other feature film was the little seen Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench.
Andrew Nieman (rising young star Miles Teller) is a 19 year old student at the prestigious Schaffer Music Academy in New York and an aspiring drummer. He admires the likes of the legendary Buddy Rich and practices for hours every day hoping to make it in the music world. His chance comes when he is invited to become part of the school’s music ensemble by the legendary but fearsome teacher Terrence Fletcher (J K Simmons, reprising his role from the short film).
Fletcher is something of a tyrant who believes in pushing his students to breaking point – and sometimes beyond – to make them great. His mantra is that the two most damaging words in the English language are “good job” because they encourage mediocrity. He cites an apocryphal story concerning the legendary Charlie “Bird” Parker to further illustrate his method of pushing his students through systematic verbal and physical abuse, insults, intimidation and browbeating. Fletcher pushes his students to breaking point in a demanding test of wills that hopefully will bring out their best. He is soft spoken, but capable of sudden bursts of invective delivered with frightening intensity.
Whiplash is essentially a two hander, with the battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher providing the dramatic fireworks. The final 20 minutes of this film offer a tense emotional roller coaster ride in which the balance of power in the tempestuous relationship between teacher and pupil is subtly changed. Chazelle’s confident direction will keep audiences emotionally off balance throughout the film. The spectacular climax will have you cheering at the same time you are poised on the edge of your seat and sweating along with Andrew.
With his shaved head and brutal and uncompromising performance here Simmons is a truly scary creation. His hypnotic and full on performance is reminiscent of R Lee Ermey’s vicious, unrepentantly foul mouthed drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, or a nastier version of John Houseman’s professor in The Paper Chase. Simmons has played unlikeable characters before (brutal tv series Oz, etc), but this is the performance of his career, and he should be the frontrunner in any Oscar talk at this stage.
This is also a revelatory performance from Teller, who first came to notice in the dark psychological drama Rabbit Hole, but he has since attracted more popular attention with his villainous role in the blockbuster YA adaptation of Divergent. His performance here is understated, and it offers a fine contrast to the manic intensity of Simmons. Teller captures Andrew’s vulnerability and desperate need to succeed in this cut throat and competitive environment where there is a lot of pressure to succeed.
Teller also did his own drumming, which adds authenticity to those scenes where we see him bleeding and sweating for his music. The sheer physicality of those scenes is raw and almost primal.
Paul Reiser (from tv series Mad About You, etc) makes the most of his small but important role as Andrew’s father, a failed writer who wants his son to succeed in his chosen field but who is dubious about Fletcher’s methods and the high emotional and physical toll they take.
The title for Whiplash comes from a complex and complicated jazz arrangement written by Don Ellis, which plays a telling part in the film’s dramatic climax. Editor Tom Gross effectively builds up the suspense, and his cross cutting and deliberate choices creates a solid rhythm and energy that is a match for the music.