Whiplash is a distinctly indie film, the kind of movie that’s all but tailor made for the festival circuit – for better or worse. Starring newfound indie darling Miles Teller and featuring a marvellously grumpy turn from old hat J.K. Simmons, it’s a modest little drama that makes for engaging viewing without ever stepping out of its comfort zone.
Teller plays Andrew, an introverted drum major at the Schaefer Conservatory. Upon joining the most prestigious band on campus, presided over by Simmons’ borderline psychopathic conductor, he swiftly finds himself swept into a spiral of depression and obsessive practicing.
Whiplash‘s greatest strength is that it takes this seemingly limited premise and manages to justify a feature-length runtime, mainly thanks to the sheer enjoyment gleaned from the sparring of the two leads. Simmons is brilliant when he’s in full flow, blending the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket with a more sinister line of emotional abuse, while Teller –with his natural charisma in buckets – provides a quiet, but insightful counterpoint.
As to be expected, there’s plenty of jazz to be found here. In fact, much of the film’s enjoyment hinges on how much you like the genre. As a relative outsider, my initial appreciation of the music waned as the film wore on and everything ended up sounding a bit repetitive. That said, on a technical front the music is consistently impressive. Teller performed most of the drumming himself and the incredibly intense and physically harrowing sequences that see him behind the kit are the film’s bombastic highlights.
Cinema has historically tended to treat musical expression as a saving grace, but in Whiplash it leaves Andrew constantly teetering on the edge of a total breakdown. It’s an attention grabbing departure from the norms, but it’s the kind of ingenuity lacking in the rest of the film’s makeup. Whiplash is a familiar beast, capably treading plenty of well-worn indie tropes, but rarely introducing anything of defining originality. The mid-budget American indie scene is so packed with capable-but-uninspired cinema that nowadays it takes something truly unique or powerful for a particular film to stand out. Amiable acceptability just doesn’t really cut it.
The script is solid, but far from exceptional. Admittedly, some of Simmons’ put-downs are gloriously anti-PC and an excruciating family dinner around the halfway mark is wince-inducingly wonderful. But with the exception of these laugh-or-gasp moments, the screenplay falls in line with the rest of the film –pleasant but far from world-shattering. Its well-worn indie structure is punctuated by the typical rise and fall narrative that we’ve seen many, many times before, while the final third is full of moral flip-flopping, eventually striking an ambiguous, if somewhat confuzzled, closing note.
Whiplash makes for perfectly pleasant viewing, but there’s plenty of superior fare on offer for the high minded indie fan. Terrifically engaging as the performances are, and darkly comic as the script’s catty high-notes may be, it doesn’t seem like a film put together to stand the test of time. There’s a fair amount of solid indie drama to be enjoyed here, but I get the sense that most people will have forgotten all about this one shortly after they’ve seen it.
The entire cast impress, but unfortunately, Whiplash rarely raises itself above amiably decent.
Whiplash Review [Sundance 2014]