Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a college freshman that wants to be the first great jazz musician of the 21st century. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is a senior instructor at an elite New York conservatory of music who wants to push his students far enough so that he will help mentor that pre-eminent jazz master.
While one can imagine any scribe using those character tropes for another paint-by-numbers tale of professor and pupil, Damien Chazelle did not. In his electrifying sophomore film, Whiplash, Chazelle strips away any veneer of positive energy or reinforcement. Andrew and Fletcher’s relationship is sadomasochistic – and so is Whiplash, a film that creates immense pleasure from pain and torment. If inspirational teacher tales are rich with sugar, then Whiplash is a shot of whiskey, harsh and uncompromising. It is also the year’s best and most riveting film.
Whiplash is a story of two characters that seem made for each other by the parameters of the genre, but who routinely clash and ignite deeper fury in each other the longer they duel. Andrew does not care about friends, but he has to prove himself to his dad (Paul Reiser in a strong, understated supporting turn) and an extended family that puts athletic achievement ahead of art. He dedicates his life to emulating Buddy Rich and walks around town with his ear buds in, the tinny clasps of drums vibrating through his head. When Andrew performs, he is ensnared and invigorated, drumming with such speed and effort that it takes multiple Band-Aids to get through a single wound. A practice where no blood, sweat and tears ends up on his drums is a rarity.
Andrew, however, is used to platitudes from his professors. With Fletcher, he meets a man who inflames his students with homophobic comments too salty to print here. He is a musician and teacher who says that the two most harmful words one can give an artist are “Good job.” His criticisms come in the form of flinging a chair across the room, intimidating students by nosing up right into their embarrassed faces and calling them very colorful profanities. It is, by all means, verbal abuse, but Andrew and the rest of his class are so driven to achieve perfection that they learn to play through the throbbing pain.
The key to the film’s emotional resonance is its intelligent storytelling and structure. Whiplash is a master-class in screenwriting; of such superb characterization that one expects it will be studied and examined as a key text in film schools a decade from now. It is easy to chart the territory of this inspirational teacher subgenre, from plot point to plot point; however, every moment you think Chazelle’s story is veering in one direction, it whips around to something bolder and more surprising.
Any time that Andrew gets a small success – a more permanent placement in Fletcher’s group, for instance – we are accustomed to think that this moment will be a stepping-stone to bigger things. However, as soon as he goes off-key or cannot quite get the tempo, we are back to the start. What makes Andrew’s journey of musical obsession so gruelling is how Chazelle does not shy away from completely knocking the protagonist off his entitled horse. With increasingly higher stakes, Whiplash manages to plunge us into artistic madness even further and creates a near-unbearable suspense. (Chazelle also wrote this year’s thrilling if overblown pot-boiler Grand Piano, about a pianist who must play a perfect concert, lest he ignite a bomb in his piano. One gets the feeling that the director did not have a lot of nurturing music teachers growing up.)
Stylistically, Whiplash is tremendously assured. Chazelle opens the film with – what else – a drumroll, an accurate motif for the film’s white-knuckle pacing. Sharone Meir’s cinematography is steady but swift as it tracks the musicians and captures the glaring source of their noise. (In one of the film’s most impressive sequences, a variety of whip pans move from an exhausted yet exhilarated Andrew and a furrowed Fletcher, creating great rhythm and suspense.) The camerawork is complemented by Tom Cross’s crisp cutting, which captures the best moments of the playing. Not one drum solo is filmed or edited in the same way: extended drum solos sometimes go with longer takes, sometimes with a bunch of crisp, staccato shots that create excitement.
Chazelle also uses small details to separate Andrew and Fletcher even further. Andrew often wears a loose-fitting white shirt, a metaphor for his clean playing but lack of discipline. Fletcher almost always arrives in class in a tight black shirt and pants, an image of professionalism and authority. Given the dark setting of the jazz room and Fletcher’s black wardrobe, it sometimes looks as though Fletcher’s bald head is floating in the air, which makes sense given the crude remarks he spits at his students is sometime all they can see and feel.
As the duelling master and protégé, Simmons and Teller give career-best performances. Simmons, a beloved character actor best known for his feisty, hard-nosed J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, has been waiting for a performance that caters to his biggest strengths in a deeper way: chilling intensity, authority and a penchant for bad language. Despite his venom, Simmons manages to humanize Fletcher in unexpected ways. It is a testament to Chazelle’s script and Simmons’ range as an actor that this terrifying character feels so realized and anguished. Appropriately, for a man who knows music, Fletcher is far from a one-note creation, but a man striving for greatness that depends on the efforts of others: when they let him down, watch out.
Teller, meanwhile, gives a performance that reaffirms him as one of the best young actors of his generation. From his scene-stealing turn in Rabbit Hole to his cunning charm in The Spectacular Now, Teller had already mastered drama and comedy. Here, while performing close to thee quarters of the blistering drum solos, he also turns Andrew into a manifestation of a younger Fletcher, hungry and stubborn, bitter and manipulative.
Whiplash achieves its fullest force when we realize that both characters are one of the same. Chazelle’s drama is terrifying and unflinching, sourly funny and emotionally wrenching, a tour de force of glorious style and masterful screenwriting and acting. It is a movie about a young musician striving for perfection, but the young man who achieves the most staggering achievement here is the 29-year-old writer/director.
Whiplash is a stunning fuse of sound and fury, told by a young master of the form and bolstered further by acting of the highest order.