Before anything visual becomes apparent, Whiplash opens with a drumbeat, one that slowly gets faster and faster, building to a rushing climax of percussion. Watching this film just recently, long after it has won all of its awards and critical plaudits, it feels like Whiplash is actually giving itself an extended introduction it has now earned, and serves to build up the audience expectations through the creation of an additional level of tension and anticipation. I was suitably engaged, but could this critical darling impress me, and overcome any subconscious bias that its success might possibly have engendered?
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a freshman music student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, who dreams of following the likes of Buddy Rich and becoming a famed jazz drummer. Enter Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the schools notoriously foul mouthed and high intensity jazz conductor, whose abusive teaching style and quest for musical perfection pushes Andrew to his physical and mental limits.
This is a real two-hander, a dual character study with two fascinating subjects. Simmons’ Fletcher, through a deservedly Oscar winning performance, dominates the action, a grand manipulator, adept at getting inside his students heads and pulling the strings as he sees fit. Looking at times like a demented goblin in his endless search for a musical prodigy to match the true greats of jazz, a quest that is as much about asserting control as it is about art, Fletcher evokes a non-comedic Malcolm Tucker in some of his well crafted lines in Damien Chazelle’s wonderfully foul script: “You are a worthless, friendless, faggot-lipped little piece of shit” is an early example, and it gets worse (or better depending on your point of view) from there. It’s all in the delivery.
The fascination with Fletcher comes primarily from seeing how far he is willing to push Andrew, and to what end really. Is he just a monster through and through, or is there something else there? The few glimpses of a more obvious humanity tantalise the viewer, but the much talked about “Good Job” scene depicts a man who is ruthlessly uninterested in mollycoddling anybody, and all for a goal that would seem petty if it wasn’t taken so seriously by all and sundry in Whiplash.
Opposite him is Andrew, a young man obsessed with being the best that he can be, but unknowing of how far he will be willing to go to achieve that, with his growing commitment to jazz drumming eventually taking on the look of psychopathic self-harm, and not just mentally: the film’s most visceral moments come as Andrew practises so hard his hands start to bleed. Andrew starts off as somebody very easy to sympathise with – dorky, easily pleased, screwing up the courage to ask the pretty girl out, trying to impress – but the signs of an overly-isolated and egotistical person, whose relationship with his unimpressive father is rickety, who actively stands apart from his family and who struggles to make a genuine romantic connection, are there from the start, even as early as Andrew eating around the undesirable raisonettes in his father’s popcorn bucket, a potent visual metaphor if ever there was one.
Whiplash enters truly great territory with Andrew’s gradual transformation into Fletcher’s willing pet, driven to cut people out of his life in an effort to impress. Teller gets shown up by Simmons in numerous scenes, but I think that’s the whole point, and his performance otherwise is an understated depiction of a discomfited man, carried out brilliantly. When Andrew admonishes members of his extended family, who fail to grasp the enormity, in Andrew eyes, of what he is trying to achieve – “I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody’s idea of success” he utters, to people he openly admits to thinking lower than him – you get a lot beyond the obvious. Andrew is desperate to break out of his weaknesses, the kid who struggles to come up with things to talk about during a date, and deflects probes with a demeanour of haughty arrogance, which becomes more of a reality as time goes on.
I can say without equivocation that Whiplash is a story that features a masterful use of suspense and tension, which is almost Hitchcockian in its nature and psychological leanings. The audio fades in and out at crucial moments, the camera makes sure to capture every wince, bead of sweat or drop of blood in close-ups and the physical and emotional pain of the entire experience is made brutally clear. The story of poor antisocial Andrew having to deal with the ferocious haranguing and mental torture of Fletcher builds up to moments of high anxiety and trepidation, but with the right moments of relief to accompany. Even from those first moments, when the camera moving towards a solitary Andrew is revealed to a POV for Fletcher, like a predator closing in on a meal, Chazelle demonstrates a key understanding of how to get heartbeats racing in scenarios that nominally wouldn’t provoke such a reaction. And that is one of Whiplash’s biggest positives, the way that the story, in conjunction with the anguish orientated direction, while fairly simple for the most part, engages the viewer wholeheartedly.
Things do get a bit silly as the film powers on, especially at the end of the second act when events occur that seem to take the question of “What lengths are you willing to go?” to extremes that are a little hard to swallow. But that’s preamble to a very powerful and effective final act, with a finale set-piece that was as surprising in its nature and message as it was satisfying to witness. Suffice to say that Whiplash is not your typical musical prodigy tale, and it is not a success story. It is a dark psychological study of the price of chasing yours dreams to the utmost.
And of course, Whiplash is strong with its actual music, from the titular high tempo number, to the more extended “Caravan” that forms the backbone of many of the more crucial scenes. I’ve never been a great appreciator of jazz I admit, but I do love drums regardless of the genre they are employed in, so I was always going to be drawn into the audio side of a film like this, where the quality of the music is contrasted nicely with the pains necessary to create it.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-Losing the folder of sheet music was an interesting moment. That it benefits Andrew so obviously raises the question as to whether Andrew deliberately “lost” it, which would make his transformation to a proper sociopath come earlier in the film, and set him up as an unreliable narrator. But I do think it was too early, and part of me thinks Fletcher might have grabbed it at that moment, to toy with the other drummer and to give Andrew his shot in a more twisted way.
-The literal car crash, as Andrew’s obsessive need to follow Fletcher’s directions results in his near death, was the moment when the film lost me a little, with the crash itself and the aftermath. It seemed a bit hard to swallow, the idea that Andrew would go that far. Still rather satisfying to see an enraged Andrew attack Fletcher though.
-The gradual destruction of Andrew’s relationships – he alienates his family early on, gets ever more distant with his father and coldly shows his girlfriend the door in as brutal a manner as possible – adds something very important to his character arc, but just as important were the fleeting attempts at reconciliation. The phone call to Nicole might be the last moment when Andrew has a chance at proper redemption of his character, but results only in an awkward rejection. Later, Andrew walks definitely away from his father in the face of Fletcher’s taunting, decisively rejecting him too, with Paul Resier’s parent, well-played throughout, left utterly heartbroken at the prospect of losing his son.
-That ending is a real thinker. At first I wasn’t mad about it, the idea that Andrew would even get back in the chair. But it’s an ending I appreciate the more and more I think about it. Of course Andrew gets back in the chair. You can see it as two fingers to Fletcher, but it’s really not: Andrew willingly surrenders himself to Fletcher’s conducting again, cues him in, and plays to impress the deranged puppetmaster that he is still in thrall to, even though Fletcher has actively tried to destroy him. The final smile between the two is a distressing one, something that foreshadows Andrew following the path of “Sean Casey”, or even the more namedropped Charlie Parker.
-Who “wins” that final scene then? Fletcher, beyond a doubt. It’s the legitimisation of his warped “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”” attitude. He pushes and torments Andrew to the point of causing a mental breakdown, and then does it some more. And Andrew still comes back, because of the terrible hold that Fletcher and his methods of creating a musical genius have on him. When Fletcher smiles at the conclusion, having finally created his Charlie Parker, it’s a devils smile, all the more distressing – in a good way – because the scene is framed as a more traditional happy “overcoming the odds” ending. But it’s not.
-In terms of comparisons, I’m actually struck by The Imitation Game, another major Hollywood “Oscar bait” flick that features a disturbing character journey for the lead that ends in a very dark place (albeit based on historical fact). The movie business doesn’t do enough of that, I feel, in its AAA-level offerings.
I found Whiplash to be fairly riveting in most respects. The two leads play off each other wonderfully, from the first moment that Andrew fails to impress Fletcher to the sweat and blood filled finale. The study of these two characters is carried out with panache, and engages the audience through the skilled blend of suspense and tension relief. A strong script allows the characters to express themselves in a unique manner, and the visual direction of Chazelle and Sharone Meir is sublime, capturing every last bit of pain and toil that such a journey takes on people. While it is maybe too late to adequately join the throng of critics and viewers who have long since fallen in love with Whiplash, I can only state my appreciation for the story told here, one that is refreshingly visceral and uniquely dark. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Classics).