Review – Whiplash (AJ)

Whiplash is one of those rare gems that takes a simple idea and fulfils its potential in such a way as to create something that transcends its immediate genre and becomes a great work of cinema in its own right. The very name is a threefold play-on-words which introduces the film’s themes of ruthlessness and the pursuit of genius. The story focuses on Andrew Neiman, a young and ambitious jazz drummer, as he tries to achieve his goal of “becoming one of the greats”. To supposedly help him in this goal is his new band conductor, Terrence Fletcher. Right from the start when they meet (in the first scene of the film), the film employs a subtle red herring before abruptly changing direction – hinting at the way that Whiplash will go on to demolish the romanticized clichés of this genre. Initially, Fletcher comes across as an understanding yet stern teacher, but that veneer quickly falls away after the first band session where he is shown to be cruel, even sadistic, in his treatment of the students. Andrew’s relationship with Fletcher becomes the central dynamic of the film, with the near-monstrous figure of Fletcher always hanging over Andrew’s encounters with his father and girlfriend. In fact there’s an almost Stockholm syndrome-like aspect at play: the more Andrew struggles to get into Fletcher’s good books by fanatically devoting himself to drumming, the more he isolates himself from everyone who actually cares about him.

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Whiplash doesn’t just have an intelligent script and a fantastic soundtrack; under Damien Chazelle’s direction the film pulls off a fantastic synergy with its stellar editing and sound mixing. The superb camera work manages to capture both the groovy smoothness underlying all jazz, as well as the kinetic intensity of the drumming in the film’s more climactic moments. Furthermore, Chazelle’s decision in regards to the bold colouring works fantastically – Andrew’s private life outside of band practice is usually tinted grey or a pallid, lifeless green, which contrasts starkly with the rich golds and blacks when inside the band practice room. Not only does this strip away the superfluous and make us focus on Andrew, Fletcher and the music, it also shows us Andrew’s way of thinking; this is it, this is his element, this is his life.

Now as fantastic as the above is, the film’s main thrust comes from the acting. Miles Teller excels as the lonely and not-very-popular kid who, for the first time in his life, gets a chance to be the best at something. His performance is surprisingly physical; he sweats and bleeds and thrashes about on his drum kit (very convincingly, given that Teller is faking most of the drumming in the film), with his ever-increasing exertions revealing the self-destructive effects that his fantasy, encouraged by Fletcher, has on him. By far and away however, the single most outstanding performance in Whiplash (and perhaps in 2014) is by J.K. Simmons as Terrence Fletcher. Simmons is a character actor who usually plays the ‘angry boss’-type, but he completely goes above and beyond in this film. In his hands, Fletcher essentially becomes that sadistic schoolmaster and taunting bully: that double-distilled cocktail of spite and authority that pushes you simply because it can and knows that it will get away with it. Crucially however, Simmons gives Fletcher the elusive trait of appearing sympathetic in spite of all that, which is what makes him such an arresting villain. This electrifying dynamic between Teller and Simmons is finally consummated in the film’s final scene: a stunning and downright orgasmic piece of cinema which wrenches one’s breath away and forever seals Whiplash’s place in the history of this genre.

What Damien Chazelle has essentially done with Whiplash is taken a relatively simple formula, and with the help of a standout cast, perfected it. Whiplash is a technical and cinematic achievement, and has rightly been hailed as one of the best films of 2014 and perhaps the decade.
5/5