This is an exciting time for cinema. There are new voices emerging. Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’ received 4 stars from me. Dolan is 25 years old. Damien Chazelle, the writer-director of ‘Whiplash’ is 29 years old. They both have the directorial chops of a master filmmaker. They both feel like the future.
‘Whiplash’ tells the story of a jazz drumming student, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) whose relationship with his teacher/conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) ends up being a kind of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ hell. Call it ‘Full Metal Julliard’.
The movie is beautifully edited (and I hope the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remembers to include ‘Whiplash’ in the Best Film Editing category because there won’t be a better edited film this year). The editing may not seem natural at first glance but it becomes natural as the film progresses. At first, the editing is admittedly jarring, but in all the right ways– in the most percussive, interesting way possible. It feels urgent and jagged, cutting and panning with the beat of the drum – it feels like jazz itself. Credit editor Tim Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir for making us feel as if we are on stage with these performers.
Even with a budget of $3.3 million, ‘Whiplash’ was a challenge to get made. Mr. Chazelle had to develop ‘Whiplash’ as a short film to help serve as a proof-of-concept for the feature-length product. J.K. Simmons played the same character in the short. Getting a long-established character actor to work on a short for free is not an easy task – Simmons must have known he was going to be a part of something truly special.
As of this moment, I would say that J.K. Simmons is a lead contender for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He is never less than riveting here and it is not surprising to see how much emotional range this actor showcases. When he employs his barbarous methods of teaching, he is terrifying – hurling metal chairs, cruel name-calling, playing inhumane mind games, pitting his students against each other, and physically torturing Andrew with repetitive drum solos even as he is bleeding all over the drum kit. But, even in subtler, quieter moments – when he surveys a student leafing through a new musical composition from measure to measure, Simmons, with the perfect amount of sarcasm simply states “Cute”. We are drawn to him.
Teller, who was so great in ‘The Spectacular Now’, does the best work of his young career here. He finds the perfect note for his character in his ability to interweave insecurity and over-confidence, two seemingly disparate characterizations at the core of young talent.
Fletcher is gonzo. His character is pitched a relentlessly high level of intensity, but necessarily so. ‘Whiplash’ is told from the student’s perspective and to this kid, Fletcher is a God. In the wrong hands, Simmons’ character could have easily been a caricature. We notice there are layers to him – there is a tragedy that occurs and for one brief scene, he seems “normal”. There is also a scene where Fletcher and Andrew are almost meeting on equal terms and they have a very different kind of interaction from the explosive ones preceding it. When Fletcher is in that classroom teaching, he is putting on a persona – he becomes this unstoppable, borderline sadistic monster that you have to overcome in order to achieve any measure of greatness.
Beyond the electrifying performances, and beautiful aesthetics, ‘Whiplash’ is a movie with a lot on its mind; it has a lot to say about artistic demons, and the cost of ambition, but is most concerned with providing two hours of disturbing entertainment value; it’s almost Kubrickian in that regard. There is a very challenging theme here that I will do my best to explain. There is no shortage of movies about how inspirational teachers are. This movie obliterates that notion, and perversely crosses a giant X over pictures like ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, ‘Dangerous Minds’, and ‘Freedom Writers’. There is a world of difference between doing your best at something and being the best at it. Fletcher sees greatness in Andrew, and because he sees such potential, he sets out to destroy his student. He believes that if Andrew can overcome that, he will be remembered as one of the musical greats. I believe the movie allows us to decide for ourselves whether that is right or wrong. There certainly is an argument to be made here – that true greatness springs from adversity, so sometimes we need to fabricate adversity in order to make people great. “There are no words more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job’” Fletcher says. In this back-patting era of diplomatically wording constructive criticism where participant medals are valued as prized possessions, ‘Whiplash’ presents a convincing argument. However, on the flip side is the question as to whether or not it is all worth it. We witness a lot of collateral damage in this picture.
In a movie filled with many memorable moments, the one that has festered into my psyche involves the climactic scene where Andrew’s father (wonderfully performed by Paul Reiser) peers in from the stage entrance to watch his son (who has been put through the ringer) perform. Mr. Reiser without any dialogue effortlessly transmits every thought going through his character’s head – this look of shock, confusion, and elation more or less signals what this movie is about.
‘Whiplash’ refers to a piece played multiple times throughout the film. But, it’s a perfect title. It leaves us in a state of astonished enervation. ‘Whiplash’ is one of the best films of 2014. It truly is a great movie. Maybe because it knows a thing or two about what greatness means. Expect Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Screenplay, among others. QED.