Taking the Black Swan approach to professional arts training (bloody, unnerving, outsized), Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash impressively harnesses the obsession with perfection that drove Darren Aronofsky’s dance drama into eye-popping new levels of both pure camp and total terror to give us a more grounded take on what it takes to make it in a competitive and creative field. Starring Miles Teller as the halting young Andrew, a dedicated drummer in his first year at a prestigious New York City music conservatory, Whiplash sets up Andrew’s struggle for greatness as a battle between both himself and the mercurial music teacher who nearly ruins his life.
The film often embraces a look and feel typically ascribed to horror films – a dark color palette, the lingering monster that is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a shifting camera – and Whiplash zings between traditional horror elements, thriller elements, and just plain drama. We first meet Andrew during a solo practice session, one that’s crashed by not just Chazelle’s steadily moving camera, but also Terence Fletcher, a looming specter who apparently prowls the halls of the school to find new talent for his studio band. Getting into Fletcher’s band is a big deal and, combined with his offbeat methods of finding new players, he’s a formidable character capable of summoning tremendous nerves from even the most talented of musicians.
Of course, Fletcher’s ability to unnerve students isn’t confined to his talent scouting, and when Andrew is plucked from one of his classes (convinced he biffed his impromptu audition with Fletcher, Andrew’s second performance for the man is far more intense and thus much better), he thinks he’s made it. He has not.
Fletcher’s obsession with precision and “his way” (or, as is often the case, “his tempo,” which seems nearly impossible for anyone else to suitably match) render him fearsome, and when he occasionally reveals a softer side, it’s nearly instantly erased by more outbursts. It’s jarring, but Simmons, so often tasked with playing a sweetie, is terrifying and believable in the role, swinging between charm and terror with the greatest of ease. Fletcher is physically abusive, emotionally abusive, and prone to screaming out obscenities of the homophobic and racist bent at his players. He makes Andrew cry during his first session with the studio band, and that’s only the beginning.
Intent on impressing his new teacher, Andrew works himself to the bone (and, as is often the case, to the blood, bleeding all over his drum kit throughout the film), sacrificing sanity, relationships (including two mostly undercooked associations with both his father, played by Paul Reiser, and a young lady who has caught his eye), and perhaps even his humanity. Teller’s charming cockiness, so often on display in films like The Spectacular Now and 21 and Over, still occasionally shows its face in his performance as Andrew, but Teller only gets better as the film pounds on, until his literal red-faced intensity sets his work in the film apart, his finest performance yet. He’s made still better by Simmons’ ferocious performance, and the film is a classic two-hander, playing Teller and Simmons off each other as Andrew uses his own two hands to pound out beats that continually seem just out of reach.
Whiplash bursts with sounds and score, and while an already instilled affection for jazz drumming (and jazz music in general) might recommend the film to certain audiences, Chazelle and Teller so explosively deliver the film’s many extended drumming sequences, even music neophytes will find themselves captivated by its aural landscape. On the visual side of things, Chazelle and cinematographer Sharone Meir deliver crisp, compelling frames, while frequently cutting between brief shots of small details – the lid of a soda, the turning of a page – an affectation that works better as the film winds on (and is much better when focused on the music side of things).
Whiplash is, however, prone to pacing and tonal issues (though none so bad as to cause audience whiplash). The film’s third act takes a swift left turn, and while Whiplash soon seems set on going down a well-tread path, Chazelle often subverts the apparent tropes (or at least delivers them with flair) and a messy, overstuffed final act ends on an extremely high note. There’s slack in the film’s middle, and its final third could stand to be tightened up, but Whiplash is a mostly jazzy, compelling, and frankly just plain bold film that pops off the screen, aided by big star turns from both its leads. This thing pounds.[This is a repost of Kate’s review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Whiplash opens in limited release today.]
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