THE STORY – Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young jazz drummer, in pursuit of rising to the top of his elite music conservatory. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an instructor known for his terrifying teaching methods, discovers Andrew and transfers the aspiring drummer into the top jazz ensemble, forever changing the young man’s life. But Andrew’s passion to achieve perfection quickly spirals into obsession, as his ruthless teacher pushes him to the brink of his ability and his sanity.
THE CAST – Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser & Melissa Benoist
THE TEAM – Damien Chazelle (Writer/Director)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
By Bianca Garner
“Not quite my tempo.” Have there ever been any other four words in cinematic history that have contained such threat, such menace, and jeopardy? When we first hear these words in Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film “Whiplash,” a wave of unsettling discomfort washes over us. How can four simple words impact us so much? Well, there’s nothing simple about those four words, and there’s certainly nothing simple about Chazelle’s direction, Tom Cross’ rapid editing, Justin Hurwitz’s electrifying score, Sharone Meir’s stunning cinematography, and the performances by the film’s two central leads, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Like an orchestra, each element of the filmmaking process comes together to perform something truly magnificent in Damien Chazelle’s second feature-length film.
It’s a story we have seen a thousand times, a young ambitious student is driven to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal, and faces an adversary in the form of an abusive and domineering figure of authority. Ultimately, we know how it will end and what the conclusion will be, but what makes “Whiplash” so unique is the fact that it deliberately plays with our expectations and presuppositions. This is a masterpiece of tension, every scene keeps building up with feverish energy and intensity until we ultimately reach that climax.
Chazelle is careful not to waste a single second or a single frame in order to keep up the film’s tempo. The scenarios in which Andrew Neiman (Teller) finds himself being thrust into keeps getting more epic in scale, becoming more chaotic and psychotic in nature. Like Terence Fletcher (Simmons), Chazelle is a master of manipulation, even in the film’s calmer moments we are on the edge, silently waiting for the action to explode in a volcanic eruption. We hold our breath when Andrew starts dating Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because we know that there’s no way in hell their relationship is going to last with Andrew’s one-track mind.
The scenes involving Andrew and his father (Paul Reiser) are heartbreaking to watch because we know their bond is loosening. As Andrew grows and becomes more and more consumed by his passion and motivation, he gets further and further away from his father’s world. His father becomes a representation of everything Andrew resents and loathes. Failure can’t be an option, as Andrew puts it so bluntly during a family dinner: “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”
Even in the film’s quieter moments, we feel the tension bubbling up. Chazelle uses silence as a method of torture, for silence is not to be trusted, especially when it comes to Fletcher. The character of Fletcher is a true mystery, thanks to Simmons Oscar-winning performance and Chazelle’s layered writing. We learn very little about who Fletcher is. We are offered small peeks into the man behind the snarl. There are scenes where we see his kindness towards a young girl, and where he becomes overwhelmed by a piece of music and the death of a past student, but these moments only add to the mystery of who really is Terence Fletcher. Every action and every word from him feels calculated as a way to control others. The name “Terence Fletcher” is the right name for this character and it adds another layer to how we think of him. Famously, when “Taxi Driver” screenwriter Paul Schrader was asked about his decision to call the main character “Travis Bickle,” he said it was down to how he liked the softness of the first name and the harshness of the surname with both names being a perfect fit for the character. Chazelle does the same here. It can’t be pure coincidence that the word “fletch” rhymes with wretch and retch.
The fact that the film is called “Whiplash” is another stroke of pure genius. Not only does it refer to Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” but the definition of whiplash is a “jerk or “jolt” to someone or something suddenly, typically so as to cause injury” or a “move suddenly and forcefully, like a whip being cracked.” Like Andrew, our world is subjected to a whiplash. To experience “Whiplash” is quite unlike anything else. You’re not simply watching the movie, you are living it.
Very few films have the power to invoke such a response as “Whiplash” does. Your heart will be continuously pounding, your teeth will be clenched throughout and there are moments where you will literally forget to breathe. Andrew suffers, he endures and he is tested. In that sense, he truly lives. According to the four noble truths of Buddhism, life is made up of suffering and as Friedrich Nietzsche put it “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Andrew has a purpose in life, and not all of us are lucky enough to find our own.
Like how “Jaws” isn’t really about a big shark and “The Shining” isn’t really about a haunted hotel, “Whiplash” isn’t really about jazz. It’s a film about the sheer willpower and determination of the individual. It’s a story of defeating the odds. It’s the hero’s journey. It’s about striving to become something better than purely adequate. It’s a hard and brutal watch: images of blood splattered cymbals, a bloody hand being plunged into a jar of ice and a single tear trickling down an emotionally broken face, will be seared into your mind forever. You’ll feel sick and dizzy after watching it, reeling from the sheer shock and awe of it all. However, “Whiplash” is an essential watch and will leave you wondering “Am I a rusher, am I a dragger…or am I going to play in time?”
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A film that buzzes with energy, featuring astonishing performances by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. A modern take on the “David Vs. Goliath” tale which proves how sheer grit and determination will ultimately see you defeat the giant.