The film industry is a funny animal. In the name of mainstream entertainment, whether we want it or not, we are constantly bombarded with iterations of a story we saw only a decade earlier, marginally worthless reboots (a filmic term that has only been in existence in the last ten years) and a slew of unflattering, unremarkable sequels. With all the derivative drivel out there, it is easy to lose hope. But once in a great while we get to see something new and exciting that really raises the bar for the industry, and also makes for an exceptional time at the cinema.
Whiplash, in many ways, is a horror story reworked to resemble an independent drama – there’s a young wide-eyed protagonist who faces a very dark, brooding, and explosively mortifying heavy who hunts him relentlessly. There’s also a lot of blood and pain. In scene after scene, we witness Miles Teller being strategically and inhumanly driven by J.K. Simmons, a man proclaiming to push musicians to their limits so they may discover their own untapped potential. But there’s a line between negative reinforcement, and outright cruelty. Yet this is where the heart of the story comes into play. Andrew (Teller) faces an onslaught of violent mood swings, physical outbursts, psychological torment, and that pretty much all happens on his first day working with Terrence (Simmons).
The film is spellbinding, not only as a character study examining a harsh student/teacher dynamic, but as the above-mentioned repurposed horror story. There are monsters in our day-to-day lives, and that’s nothing new but in a way, Whiplash can also be viewed as a disaster flick. There is a fleeting and disarming calm before the storm whenever Simmons’ Terrence Fletcher, very soon to be remembered in the same breath as someone like Hannibal Lecter, is about to erupt. But when it comes down, it comes down in bloody sheets, and no one is safe from the wrath he unleashes. It. Is. Brutal.
J.K. Simmons is unparalleled here. Not only is this his best role to date (sorry Spidey friends), he nearly eclipses all the other talent in any film this year. The role of Terrence Fletcher could be one of the most unsettling yet arresting performances of the decade. Misconception, intimidation and ulterior motives, plus some sadism for good measure, all are elements at play as they are the sharpest tools in Fletcher’s toolbox. He wields them like a surgeon and, love or hate him in the role, you have to admit, it’s brilliantly captivating. Miles Teller on the other hand (after coming off his astounding work in The Spectacular Now), holds fast. Close to the breaking point (and past it at times) we see his emergence, as subtle though it might be, from a young impressionable music student, to someone on the very cusp of greatness. He also does sensational and real-time work on the drum kit.
The scariest thing about the film is not the catalyst or hardships that make people extraordinary. Similarly, sometimes, it’s not even the people who push and prod others who are monsters either. It is actually the desire to be great which will make us take so much abuse that we become monsters ourselves to achieve said greatness. Further, it’s the high price of success and what is lost in the exchange. Those who gain it truly earn it, yet it doesn’t come without a loss of something. The only question is whether or not the trade off is worth it.
Moreover, Chazelle’s film tells a story about pursuits. Yet it’s the pursuit of something (both Teller and Simmons’ characters) that can make us so focused on the goal that we miss everything around us. What pushes someone to be the best? What is the point of no return? What is too much time spent for, seemingly, zero result or recognition? After all, of our losses, time is the most unrecoupable. It can never be redeemed. That said, the film still also focuses on subtly. Moments between Simmons’ glorious outbursts are where Teller’s Andrew Neyman shines as he quests to be the best, taking beatings and blisters in hopes of reaching his destination.
Whiplash is an exhilarating character study, filled with phenomenal performances (and music by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec). Whether or not you’ve ever picked up an instrument, the film is universal in how it looks at what we risk in the quest for perfection (or at the very least, acceptance) at any level. That should be everyone’s tempo.