Whiplash is a tense (but somewhat hollow) psycho-thriller that features a ferocious performance to remember from J.K. Simmons
Whiplash stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, a 19-year old whose big dreams of becoming a great jazz drummer lead him to attend the Manhattan-based Shaffer Conservatory, which is generally considered one of the best music schools in the U.S. (maybe even the world). Hence when Andrew, a first-year student, is selected by Shaffer’s top instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) as a new drum alternate for Fletcher’s band, the young musician is both in awe and terrified at the same time.
However, Andrew quickly learns that Fletcher’s quest for perfection knows no bounds, nor does his willingness to emotionally, verbally, and sometimes even physically abuse his students until they achieve greatness. Andrew pushes himself to extremes in order to meet Fletcher’s high standards, but it soon becomes hard to tell if Fletcher is trying to launch Andrew into the stratosphere… or get him to burn up during takeoff.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), Whiplash is a film that examines what it takes to achieve greatness as an artist; and thus, brings to mind such recent movies as Black Swan, thematically speaking. The difference is that Darren Aronofsky’s film is a psycho-drama about its protagonist’s descent into madness, whereas Chazelle’s picture is more a psycho-thriller focused on a battle of wills between two people with an unhealthy father/son-like relationship. At the end of the day, though, both films have similar strengths and weaknesses.
Chazelle uses some of the same techniques that Aronofsky is known for, in order to bring the story and world of Whiplash to life. That includes the use of quick cuts and extreme closeups of unpleasant details (be it trumpet players emptying their spit valve or Andrew’s hands bleeding as he drums) as well as melodramatic facial closeups. Combined together with dynamic camera movement showing the onscreen action, and that approach is able to maintain a stifling and intense atmosphere throughout the film, no matter what is happening. Stylistically, Whiplash succeeds as pure suspenseful filmmaking, by pulling viewers into Andrew’s isolated and anxious mindset.
… Unfortunately, Whiplash comes up a bit short, when it comes to being a layered work of storytelling. Whereas a recent film like Birdman is insightful as both a movie about the experience of being an actor and, on a deeper level, a story about more universal themes, Whiplash doesn’t have a whole lot to say about music or jazz – the subjects it’s examining on the surface – and its story about the cost of greatness, as indicated before, is both familiar and somewhat thinly drawn. Mind you, Whiplash is very much a watchable and engaging film, but it’s better as a thrill ride than a meaningful piece of storytelling, especially as things start to get increasingly ridiculous (in terms of plot developments) along the way. In other words, there are style over substance issues here.
That said, the element that really makes Whiplash so compelling is J.K. Simmons, who delivers quite the terrifying performance – reminding everyone that he is one of the best true character actors around. Fletcher, with his bulging eyes and ability to change from kindly paternal figure to foul-mouthed monster in the blink of an eye, is easily on of the year’s most memorable characters, thanks to Simmons. There are times when Fletcher starts to become somewhat cartoonish, but thanks to Simmons it’s hard to say for certain much of Fletcher’s behavior is meant to be an act – to either inspire or comfort those around him – and how much is just, well, who he is.
Miles Telller takes a break from playing cocky, fast-talking, young men with his role in Whiplash, as the softer, introverted, and ungainly Andrew – nevertheless, it’s yet another fine performance from Teller. Thing is, there’s not a whole lot to his character; Andrew’s quest to achieve greatness is given some development, but beyond that he’s a bit too much of a blank slate before he starts going over the edge (Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan has a similar problem).
There’s also a romantic subplot featuring Melissa Benoist (Glee) that’s meant to look at “the price” that Andrew pays to pursue his dreams, but that story thread is a bit throwaway. Similarly, Whiplash takes a few steps to juxtapose the Andrew/Fletcher dynamic with Andrew’s relationship to his actual father (Paul Reiser), but in the end it doesn’t add a whole lot in the way of depth to the film’s protagonist or his personal quest. To be clear, though, Benoist and Reiser both play their parts well and serve the purpose they’re assigned in the larger narrative (somewhat flimsy it may be).
In summation? Whiplash is a tense (but somewhat hollow) psycho-thriller that features a ferocious performance to remember from J.K. Simmons. It has the style befitting a movie that could be called a modern-day Hitchcock thriller, but not the substance; nor does its present its central argument – about the price that must be paid to become a legend (or “the cost to be the boss” as James Brown put it) – well enough to make someone reconsider where they stand on the issue. Nonetheless, Whiplash is quite an entertaining cat versus mouse game to watch.
Whiplash is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 106 minutes long and is Rated R for strong language including some sexual references.
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