Harrowing, propulsive, and euphoric, Whiplash is a spellbinding drama about the toxic fallout from rampant ambition and cutthroat perfectionism; a make-or-break movie aimed at those who have ever wanted to be excellent at anything; and a cynical, intense, blood-curdling portrait of geniuses as sociopaths. It’s a scorching, cymbal-clashing achievement.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a promising 19-year-old student at Shaffer, an upscale Manhattan conservatory, has high aspirations: to catch the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, Burn After Reading, Juno), its legendarily menacing jazz chair, and to become a hall-of-fame drummer no matter the cost, even if it means flaming out and dying young. Fletcher is demonically demanding of his young performers – he berates, rebukes, denounces, humiliates – while his ensemble absorbs the abuse, determined to impress their impossible-to-please leader.
Whiplash features a pair of performances that eclipse everything around them. Just like the music that drives the film, Teller and Simmons are in perfect rhythm. One must appreciate the sight of two totally dialed-in performers simmering until they boil over. Teller, wonderfully natural in last year’s The Spectacular Now, shows a feral intensity that’s exciting to witness. Deep down, Andrew knows a harsh and merciless fact: debris surrounds transcendence, and ecstasy is found within agony.
Relying on emotional brutality rather than pedagogical instruction, Fletcher is despotic, spouting vulgar epithets, hammering home the notions that “if it’s not flawless, it’s worthless” and “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” (Morally, that’s disgraceful; socially, that’s explosive; artistically, that’s sensical.) Few actors could pull off Fletcher’s blend of eviscerating wit and manipulative charm as believably as Simmons does. Simmons delivers every insult with such punctuating tenacity, the audience can feel every seething syllable; his venom-spewing is as hypnotic as Full Metal Jacket’s drill instructor Hartman.
The narrative rarely breaks tempo and breathes and moves like a jazz number, rendering every turn, reveal, and twist of perspective a stupendous showstopper. It just keeps charging forward, imploring you to stay plugged in, keeping you off-balance and adrift. The film’s aversion toward hitting expected beats lends it a rare, welcome edge of danger. Imagine a cross between a David Mamet play and a violent UFC bout restaged in a music conservatoire.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), with this expansion of his Sundance-winning short, constructs a fearsome duet between his lead characters. Winner of both Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, Whiplash is an unapologetic, accomplished work of kinetic cinema, delivering a sharp and gripping rhythm and an energy you’re unlikely to see very often. As the film builds to a cathartic crescendo à la Black Swan, Chazelle never misses a beat, and turns out to be a natural-born filmmaker with impressive chops. He’s a true discovery, and now a directorial force to be reckoned with.
Whiplash has a deafening message: you can be a world-class musician, or you can be a well-adjusted member of society, but you can’t be both. In presenting an epic battle of wills between two fanatical artists, one doing everything in his power to painfully make a master out of the other, Whiplash depicts an unusually unromantic approach to music education. It’s about the wages of all-out sacrifice and commitment – the very antithesis of “let’s-put-on-a-show” fluff – and a stunning exploration of the price of creativity and the springboards of inspiration.
Electrifying and resoundingly thunderous, Whiplash is a perverse, inverse, modern Amadeus. The film’s closing sequence is some of the greatest drumming you’ve ever seen; by the credits, Chazelle has demolished the clichés of the musical-prodigy genre, and Andrew and Fletcher have worked out the theory that pressure turns coal into a diamond. It gets a few things wrong (Melissa Benoist’s Nicole, the only female character, is sidelined to the point of irrelevance), but it aims at, and achieves, an authenticity more exalted and more primal than mere verisimilitude. Sifting through so many compelling layers, you may not even notice the flaws.
Whiplash is virtually guaranteed to send you out of the theater on an adrenaline high, and will undoubtedly be the best jazz movie you see all year. It will also be one of the best movies, period.