“Whiplash” is unlike any movie I’ve seen before. On the surface it’s about a young drummer’s quest to become “one of the greats”, but it tells this story in a way which feels almost entirely original and incorporates the best elements of the drama, suspense and horror genres.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a student at the prestigious Schaefer Music Conservatory who is invited by Mr. Fletcher, a band leader he admires, to join his band. Within the first few minutes of class, Mr. Fletcher stops practice to announce there is an out-of-tune player. He gets within a few inches of the player’s face and before he’s even finished asking the player if he’s out of tune the student is on the verge of tears. Fletcher berates him and permanently dismisses him from the band. Andrew is soon the recipient of Fletcher’s anger as his face is slapped while he counts beats and is asked if the slapping is ahead of or behind the tempo. When not playing, the entire class sits quiet and rigid with their eyes toward the floor. They are fearful of what might come. Mental and physical abuse is a daily occurrence and Fletcher gets away with it because his pupils are all here to pursue a dream and will do nothing to jeopardize that. Pursue is too light a word; they are here to fulfill a dream.
While unique in many ways, “Whiplash” has similarities to Darren Aronofsky’s great films “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan”. Just as those films depict people who live for their professions and include rich detail of the dedication (Mickey Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson tanning and dyeing his hair in addition to working out and Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers balancing on her toes until she breaks a nail off and dieting constantly) needed to succeed, “Whiplash” shows Andrew’s complete immersion in jazz. Deep in an obsession with maintaining a part in the band, Andrew clears his walls except for a poster of a jazz idol and holes up practicing until his fingers bleed. He then bandages his fingers and continues, his face contorting into a pained, determined and tortured countenance. Putting blood, sweat and tears into his work is not figurative for Andrew.
Everything about “Whiplash” is expertly crafted and the structure provides character detail rather than simply lay out the order of scenes. About 15 minutes into the film when Andrew goes on a casual date to have pizza with a girl named Nicole he knows from the theater he frequents with his dad, it’s the first significant amount of time he’s seen outside the conservatory. He and Nicole talk about their lives and he learns she doesn’t know what she wants to major in and attends her college because she applied and got in. When she asks him why he attends Schaefer he replies without any hesitation, “It’s the best music school in the country.” Later, the two are in a diner and he coldly but honestly tells her they shouldn’t date because he can’t be distracted. Nicole leaves in tears and the waitress comes to the table with a pitcher of ice water. The movie goes from this to another pitcher of ice water. This time the camera stays on the pitcher as Andrew, practicing on the drums, plunges his bloody fist into it the water, turning it red. Another scene in which Andrew discusses success with his family is enthralling, disturbing and tragic as the dialogue crackles.
Teller already has proven himself to be a fine actor with “The Spectacular Now”, but in “Whiplash” he gives what is one of the great performances in recent years. J.K. Simmons, who is always a strong actor usually seen in more lighthearted roles such as the dad in “Juno”, gives an impressively complex and intimidating portrayal of Fletcher. Much of the greatness of “Whiplash” is owed to the brilliant screenplay by Damien Chazelle, who also directed. It would have been very easy for Fletcher to appear as a one-note character. Instead, the viewer is never sure if Fletcher enjoys being abusive because he likes the power or because he genuinely wants his students to be great and this is way of getting them there. He tells Andrew, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”