Andrew thinks he is driven. In practice rooms, he bangs on the drums passionately, striving for a tempo that’s a tick faster than he previously thought possible. He pushes himself hard, but he does not realize what it means to be driven until he meets Fletcher, a brilliant bandleader who is also a vindictive sadist. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is not a teacher/student film, exactly. It’s more like a descent into mutually-assured madness: Chazalle raises the stakes until the characters and audience are literally left breathless. It is so powerful, so confident, and so immediately convincing that it could give aspiring artists the wrong idea about the nature of sacrifice.
We spend a significant amount of time with Andrew (Miles Teller) before we get a strong hint of Fletcher (JK Simmons) and his true nature. Andrew is a nice Long Island kid and talented percussionist, the sort of young man who sees classic French thrillers with his father (Paul Reiser) out of pity. Andrew is a first year student at a top music academy, and one day Fletcher hears him play. Fletcher offers no sense of whether he likes what he hears, naturally, yet Andrew finds himself playing second chair in his prestigious jazz band. He cannot believe his luck, awe-struck by his fellow band-mates, at least until Fletcher begins rehearsal.
There is no traditional sense of respect here: calculated fear guides Fletcher’s rehearsal environment. He humiliates a horn player, then goes after Andrew. Chazelle’s careful editing and Simmons’ performance give the impressions that we’re in the classroom with Andrew: we struggle to hear the imperfections that Fletcher can, and recoil with discomfort when others cannot. Andrew’s debut does not go well: Fletcher gets inside his head, to the point where we can hear how he’s off tempo. By the time Fletcher’s abuse turns physical, something strange happens in Andrew. He makes the decision that he will not back down from the man who slams him and calls him names. Chazelle follows this decision to its logical conclusion, which creates a reckoning for Andrew and Fletcher.
Whiplash has a traditional three-act structure, complete with an intense moment of redemption, although it is difficult to recognize the formula since the details are raw and physical. In his struggle for perfection, Andrew repeatedly plays the drums so hard that his bands bleed (there are several close-ups of calloused hands and fingertips). The pursuit of greatness is barely believable – Andrew makes several choices that are outright insane – except Chazalle’s (correctly) conflates Andrew’s pursuit alongside a coming of age story. We cannot believe a guy like Andrew would make horrific sacrifices, unless he wraps up those sacrifices with adolescent delusions of grandeur. By the time twists border on the supernatural, Chazelle abandons realism in favor of heightened sense of brutality. He puts us in Andrew’s head, so Whiplash holds a twisted sense of logic as long as we do not leave his headspace.
Teller is a tremendously likable actor, and here he shows how to transfer charisma into something more sinister. At first, it’s nothing but garden variety vanity (anyone with over-achieving peers will love the revenge fantasy scene where Andrew lashes out after being compared to others). Teller pushes beyond vanity toward complete psychological meltdown: his otherwise perfunctory break-up scene with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) resonates because Teller lets us know he’s aware of Andrew’s mistakes. And when his tunnel vision has real consequences, Teller’s non-verbal acting is more powerful than any spoken line. Teller seemingly lacks self-awareness in the second half of Whiplash, and his face combines exertion with inward menace.
But for all the strong work Teller offers – physically and otherwise – Simmons steals the show as Fletcher. He’s played a hard-ass before (e.g. his turn as the no-nonsense CIA director in Burn after Reading), yet nothing compares to what he accomplishes as Fletcher. In a role that will assuredly earn him an Academy Award nomination, Simmons never holds back, whether he’s charming or a monster. There is room for comedy here; like the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, Fletcher’s abuse is peppered with hilarious insult comedy. The principle difference, however, is context: a jazz band does not have the stakes of the Vietnam War, at least until Fletcher creates an environment where it feels that way. There are several sequences where Fletcher pits Andrew against fellow drummers, and the stakes feel like life or death because, well, Chazelle shows us why Fletcher’s approval is worth each bullet of sweat and popped blister. Toward the end of Whiplash, there is an intriguing scene where, finally, Fletcher explains himself a little. His rationalization for his behavior is bullshit, of course, yet it works in the moment.
The final fifteen minutes of Whiplash are all build-up without any relief, and I mean that in the best possible way. While there are the usual clichés of the battered hero, the cruel villain, and the big public display, Chazelle dismantles the hope for lasting catharsis. Jazz percussion is the sole weapon in a two-person battle of psychological warfare, with the public barely understanding what is happening. Some criticisms of Whiplash point out its underdeveloped sub-plots, and its superficial interest in jazz history. While accurate, those criticisms are beside the point. Whiplash ends with two talented men who harm themselves because their sense of spite is stronger than their sense of self-preservation. It takes genuine passion – and genuine hatred – for such a brazen, selfish two-person climax. When Andrew plays one last time, does his musical prowess matter? In one sense, it’s the only thing that matters. In another, it’s too late because Andrew already lost his mind. There is room for both in Whiplash, which helps make it one of the year’s best films.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvOksqh1Td0