Whiplash (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong language including some sexual references
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Review published November 18, 2014
Miles Teller (Two Night Stand, That Awkward Moment) stars as Andrew Neyman, a freshman at a highly prestigious New York music school trying to learn to be a professional jazz drummer who gets drafted by the school's most esteemed music instructor, Terence Fletcher (Simmons, Barefoot), into his band featuring la crème de la crème among future music superstars. What he doesn't know is that Fletcher is the most rigid, vitriolic, and ill-tempered perfectionist who believes in pushing his students beyond the point of sanity if necessary to become the best they can be. The two immediately butt heads, to the point where Andrew becomes obsessed with proving Fletcher he's the best drummer he's ever heard, to the point where both men are pushing each other to the breaking point until one is going to crack.
Written and directed is truly riveting style by Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), who penned a similar script the same year about a piano maestro forced to play the performance of his career under gunpoint in Grand Piano, Whiplash emerges as one of the most engaging and gripping psychological dramas of 2014. It brings out a volatile mix of hungry student out to prove he's the best out there and unrealistic instructor, who thinks he's going to find the next Charlie Parker in his class if he can keep cranking on the pressure cooker of their psyches higher and higher. Meanwhile, Neyman is determined he can not, will not fail, even if it means expending every drop of blood, sweat and tears -- and expend them all he does -- just to prove he can be the next Buddy Rich, even if it's just to shut Fletcher up once and for all.
Miles Teller, whose very name evokes jazz greatness, continues to show why he's on the A-list of upcoming actors in the industry, in a role that truly shows his wide range -- and yet, his much deserved accolades will be muted by another's in the film: J.K. Simmons. Simmons gives an intense performance worthy of an Oscar nod, in what may be his best in a long and distinguished career as a character actor. He commands the screen with a fierceness that permeates every frame in which he's in. He's not represented as purely evil, but purely driven with a singular focus that is truly terrifying because it's not clear as to whose purpose he is continuing to drive his students with the determination of a hundred drill sergeants. That he can seem so calm and accommodating in one second and quickly turn into in-your-face abusive makes him scary at all times, knowing it could turn sadistic at any second, and for any reason, even if you're doing nothing wrong. He's going to find a diamond, he determines, if he can apply enough heat and pressure on the carbon he calls his students, and those that crack are quickly replaced by the next willing subject.
Supporting players serve more story functionality than anything else, but the players breathe life into their small roles. Paul Reiser (Life After Beth) offers a sharp contrast to Simmons because he loves his son unconditionally, initially buying his son a drum set because it makes him happy, and not because he expects him to use them to be the best drummer in the world. His warmth and understanding would seem a safe place for a fractured psyche to turn to, if only that hatred and desire to prove a malevolent teacher wrong weren't so compelling. Melissa Benoist ("Glee") is the girl Teller has a crush on, who makes him feel happy and loved, but soon is seen as more of the fat he needs to trim if he's going to be the best of the best in a the dog-eat-dog music industry, especially in a class in which there is no room for error.
Whiplash isn't always a plausible, and sometimes oversteps its bounds as a small-scale drama, but any veering off course seems to be immediately righted with another riveting, powerful scene. Beautifully edited by Tom Cross (Any Day Now) and gorgeously photographed by Sharone Meir (Coach Carter), this is bordering on Raging Bull territory -- cinematic jazz in motion -- especially when combined with Justin Hurwitz's standout music. Even with a rock-solid, perhaps career-accelerating performance by Teller, and a truly mesmerizing, transformative supporting turn by Simmons, the real talent to watch in the future is director Chazelle, who seemingly put the proverbial screws on his lead actors in a Terence Fletcher-like way and found his Charlie Parkers. The only question that remains is, after such a virtuoso performance, what can Chazelle possibly do for an encore?
©2014 Vince Leo