Who needs bells-and-whistles action scenes when you can make the simple sight of someone drumming for another’s approval this intense? I don’t particularly feel that any of the final list of potential Best Picture Oscar winners really deserved to be named the best of 2014 (the snubbing of NIGHTCRAWLER and MR. TURNER particularly rankles) but WHIPLASH probably comes closest out of The Academy’s selection.
Andrew (Miles Teller) has a dream of being the next jazz drumming great, the next Buddy Rich. He’s well on his way to being a musical prodigy, attending a well-regarded music college and performing in some of the best bands in the country. But someone wants to crush Andrew’s dream, and that man is the psychotic and malicious bandleader Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). Egos collide and the battle to achieve perfection begins, but who will triumph in this battle of wills, Andrew or Fletcher?
Yes, Simmons deserves every one of his plaudits, making Fletcher an unknowable sneering hurricane. He’s arguably the most formidable on-screen mentor/abuser since FULL METAL JACKET, and much like that movie’s Drill Sergent Hartman, you want to despise him but can’t quite bring yourself to, mostly because of the way he grinds people down is so darned funny-uncomfortable. His profane, homophobic outbursts are awful, but hilarious. Simmons’ terrifying presence and what he does to Andrew and others over the course of the film would be enough to make him memorable, but I also loved the subtle, almost playfully supernatural trappings of him as a character. Fletcher is a ghoul, a spectre with the uncanny ability to appear at any moment to completely and utterly destroy you. No other man alive could make a criticism like “not quite my tempo” drip, nay gush, with such menace.
You can’t take anything away from Miles Teller, either. The film hinges on Fletcher having someone’s misery to feed off, like a smart-casual Dementor, and Teller brings to sweaty, blistering and bloody life Andrew’s near-constant suffering. Teller has been playing drums since he was a child, and does around half of Andrew’s on-screen performing, a real achievement in addition to evoking all the complexities and misery of his character.
As well as the nerve-shredding band practice and performance sequences that act as the film’s set pieces, Whiplash gives us the most uncomfortable breakup scene since THE SOCIAL NETWORK. We’re willing Andrew not to go through with it, to not act like such a jerk to the lovely Nicole (Melissa Benoist) but we simultaneously know everything he’s telling her is true, that there is no room for her on his life as long as he plays.
It’s a stroke of genius to have Andrew’s drive morph from passion for his art to utter detest of his mentor. It’s a really good arc that inexorably binds the fate of our protagonist to that of our antagonist and comments on the fragility of creative drive and the duel nature of love and hate. At first we think Fletcher is testing Andrew down to build him back up again, the classic “for your own good” prickly mentor tack, but we soon realise Fletcher is simply abusing Andrew because he enjoys doing it. Equally, when Andrew starts to fight back, determined to beat Fletcher at his own game and prove he is that good, it’s for purely selfish reasons, to humiliate Fletcher rather than to achieve musical transcendence.
The one scene that I didn’t buy, Andrew’s car crash and subsequent bloodstained stagger to perform, could conceivably have been inspired by the experiences of Teller and his director, Damien Chazelle, both of whom have been involved in such trauma in recent years. Chazelle even returned to work the day after his crash, much in the same way Andrew still somehow makes it to perform. Why not use your own experiences to add a bit of (admittedly unnecessary) dramatic clout to your movie?
Dramatic flourish aside, Whiplash is a hypnotic, exhausting experience boasting two of the best performances of the year. It’s too carefully rehearsed and meticulously put together to be considered truly “jazzy”, but as a chronicle of two human beings using music as a tool to tear each other apart, it’s a dark delight. SSP