Overview: A drum student’s academic and professional career are put on the line when he catches the attention of a vicious music conductor whose methods will either make him great or kill him in the process. 2014; Sony Pictures Classics; Rated: R; 106 min.
Sweat and Blood: Writer and director, Damien Chazelle imbues Whiplash with all the tension of the very best thrillers and all the sweat and blood of the greatest boxing dramas. Part of what makes the film so great is how unexpectedly brutal it is. This is no traditional A Star is Born journey. Anytime the film feels like it might head in an expected direction it quickly takes a turn and demolishes clichés. Chazelle gets down into the grit of music, and strips it of its glamour and bright lights. He gives us the raw power of drumming, from calloused hands to blood stained sticks. Cinematographer Sharone Meir’s use of low key lighting gives the film an edgy quality that is at times reminiscent of David Fincher. While humor is a definite factor in the film, it never allows you to relax. If anything it adds to the tension because just as soon as you begin to loosen up, the film comes back with another punch to the gut.
Giving and Taking a Beating: The performances are pitch perfect and uncompromising. Both J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller have a strong shot at this year’s Oscar nominations. Simmons’s performance as conductor Terence Fletcher grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. He creates one of the most interesting villains of the year, one that leaks off the screen and dares even the audience to challenge him. Fletcher is not a man driven by greed, power, or violence, but a man who wants to bring great music into the world. He has a purposeful cruelty but his manipulation is driven by pettiness as much as righteousness. Any time Simmons flashes a bit of humanity or likeability, he quickly reminds you Flechter is a man that feeds on tears and blood because he knows the potential they can hold.
Miles Teller’s performance as Andrew Neyman exudes the burning desire for greatness. Andrew wants greatness so much it hurts, and it hurts to watch him try and fail repeatedly. He is the nail to Fletcher’s hammer, driven with purpose but always on the edge of being bent or ruined. Teller gives Andrew a careful mix of sympathetic likeability and naïve arrogance. While his actions sometimes waver on the edge of insanity, his hatred and admiration for Fletcher make his every choice understandable. With this performance, Teller cements himself as one of the most talented young actors in Hollywood.
Drumroll, Please: There is no reward without pain. As rough a lesson as that is in the film, it rings true and feels like a message earned by the end. Whiplash is without a doubt the most emotionally intense film of the year. I left the theatre with sweating palms and a racing heart, not only because of what had just been delivered, but also because of the promise of great things for all involved. On numerous levels, seeing Whiplash is to witness the birth of greatness.