Whiplash: Movie Review
Cast: Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Director: Damien Chazelle
What drives creativity and what makes it thrive are the two potent ingredients in Damien Chazelle's intensely electrifying Whiplash, the story of Miles Teller's wannabe jazz drummer, Andrew Neyman.
He's enrolled in the Schaffer music school for the gifted, inspired by his admiration for the likes of Buddy Rich and determined to break into the group run by conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) which works the competition circuit and is believed to be one of the best.
However, Neyman soon discovers that wanting to be the best isn't enough for Fletcher, and an educational game of cat-and-mouse begins with musical and personal stakes at the highest level....
Whiplash is an astounding piece of cinema, essentially a two-hander which thrives on the perverse and monstrous relationship between student and mentor. As this mental game of chase plays out, with Neyman doing whatever it takes to impress Fletcher, the film delves deeply into what students are willing to lay on the line to succeed, with the actions on the screen revealing more about the pair's psyche that reams of exposition ever would.
It helps that both Teller and Simmons are utterly commanding presences, with Simmons bringing some of the drill-sergeant intensity, volatility and utter terror that he displayed as Schillinger way back when in TV series Oz. It's simply a career best for him.
But whilst Fletcher's a truly despicable mentor, riddled with simmering ferocity that's bubbling under just waiting to explode like your worst nightmare, Teller's Neyman more than matches him with his initial wide-eyed, keen-to-learn student attitude being shaped into something more sinister by the drive to succeed. His burgeoning relationship with another student (Benoist) and his interactions with his sports-loving family merely serve to demonstrate how far detached he's become from what's normal in life.
Thankfully, both Teller and Simmons demand your attention on the screen, and in initial rehearsal scenes (where you can see the explosion waiting to happen from a mile off), you can hear a pin drop in the build up and resultant moments as the vulnerable Andrew digs deep into himself to reach the heights which Fletcher demands of him. The final sequence alone in this psychological tale is perhaps one of the finest committed to celluloid this year.
There's a whole debate about whether latent talent is to be nurtured and coaxed out or whether it is to be pushed as far as is humanly possible in a callous way; Chazelle doesn't shy from that, leaving the audience in no doubt that there are no easy answers, opting instead for ambiguity.
And there are certainly calluses on screen as well, with Teller's ferocious drumming leading to some shocking images such as bloodied hands being plunged into ice water. There's also a raw power to the music scenes as well with jazz tunes Whiplash and Caravan being brought kinetically to life as the car-crash comes into full focus. Sacrifice, self-worth, self-belief, teaching, learning and personal drive and limits are all valid themes espoused throughout Whiplash, and with no easy answers proffered.
However, it's thanks to two electrifying leads that Whiplash is one of 2014's greats; the questions over who's the bad guy here (student or mentor) furrows down deep into some serious questioning and may prove equally as intriguing, but at the end of the day, Whiplash is as an astounding, passionately claustrophobic and as raw a movie as you're likely to see.