The quality of “Whiplash” was a massive surprise for me; it was intelligent, emotional, well written and well acted, making for an incredibly enjoyable experience. I knew a bit about the movie before going to see it at the cinema, and I was expecting something good, but just how good this film was really did surpass my expectations. I didn’t believe that it would be a movie that I’d enjoy more than others I had seen this year, because the subject matter that it sets out to tackle isn’t something which I would state as my ideal storyline for a film. However, “Whiplash” goes above and beyond its underlying narrative, through amazing performances and fantastic chemistry between the two leading men.
The film is about Andrew Neiman, a young jazz drummer at Shaffer Conservatory, which is said to be the best music school in the United States. At the start of the movie he is brought into the band of uncompromising Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher as a drum alternate, and from that point onwards he attempts to impress his daunting tutor, facing psychological torture as a result.
Initially this might seem pretty straight forward, and in fact the story doesn’t stray too far from what you might expect, given the information that I’ve just provided. However, this movie isn’t about surprising an audience with unnecessary twists and turns, instead it’s about challenging your intuitions as to whether or not Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) is the villain or the hero of the piece, particularly in relation to his tutelage of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller). In its purest form this is a character study, and it is truly fascinating, asking the question of how far we are willing to go in order to gain success, and whether or not there should ever be a line drawn in the sand when greatness is what’s at stake.
“Whiplash” did a wonderful job of keeping me engaged with something that I’m not really involved with in my everyday life. There was a time in which music was a passion of mine, because when I was younger I played the tenor horn, and as I became an angry self-obsessed teenager I was always going to gigs, and I prided myself on knowing all the new bands coming on the scene. But now I’ve grown out of that phase and sadly lost my interest in music; I don’t really have any moments when I feel the need to listen to a song, because I used to use music as an escape when I was on the bus, something to drown out strangers talking about their problems, but now I don’t really take public transport (hurray for having a driver’s license) and if I do then I’d rather play my PS Vita than listen to an album.
This film makes me forget that fact, and makes me feel as though jazz music is something that I couldn’t be more interested in. The music was great and the titular song, which we heard sections of multiple times, was a great choice to get the audience hooked on the sound and the style of the film. I wouldn’t be surprised if a large number of young people that see this movie wind up getting lessons on how to play the drums afterwards, because it really shows just what a talent it is to be able to play an instrument, and also promotes the idea that with a lot of practice you can make the most of yourself and any underlying ability you have. I know that that isn’t always the case, because we all have our limits and if we didn’t everyone would be on an even playing field, but this film rightfully promotes hard work and dedication if you want to succeed, and I think that that’s a positive message, even if this particular main character’s determination veers off into obsession. In any case, the quality of the cinematography and direction mean that the subject matter soon becomes something you are very immersed in as you watch the movie.
The performances in “Whiplash” are all very impressive, and they certainly make the movie what it is. If this movie’s performances hadn’t been of such a high calibre then it probably wouldn’t have been anything special, simply because the material relies so heavily on commitment and passion in each and every scene. The film is all about being the best that you can be, exceeding boundaries, and transforming yourself into something better than you ever imagined you could be; these ideals are enshrined by both Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons for each and every second that their collective presence fills the screen.
A lot of the press and the notoriety following the release of this film has gone to J. K. Simmons, who undoubtedly does a stunning job as fearsome conductor Terence Fletcher, bringing both a sense of self-righteousness and confidence to the role, as well as an undeniable aggression and power; even a flick of his fingers feels as though it demands compliance.
Nevertheless, to say that this is simply an angry and physically imposing performance would be to do the Golden Globe and Oscar winner a disservice, because his work in this movie is far more than that. He understands the character he’s playing and demonstrates that fact in those scenes where Fletcher is not losing his cool or throwing inanimate objects at helpless musicians. Fletcher as a character has quieter moments towards both the beginning and end of the movie, and it’s in these moments that J. K. Simmons is so expressive and thoughtful, giving his character an extra dimension which only makes him that bit more frightening. Simmons gives the character just enough of a smile, and just enough sincerity, so that his motives are never absolutely clear, which is just terrifying when you know that he is capable of exploding at any moment. You really don’t know when this man is being genuine or when he’s playing you for the fool, and in fact you still aren’t sure when the end credits roll, which is the true brilliance of Simmons’ performance.
Teller is equally as good as Simmons in this movie, which first of all is saying a lot of his acting ability, and second leads me to ask why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Not a lot of people asked that question, despite the fact that they were obsessing over the fact that people like Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get the nod. I loved Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler”, and I’ve said as much in both my review of that film and my summary of the best movies of 2014, but I have to go on record and say that Teller is just as good.
They are different roles, and Gyllenhaal arguably has more to do, carrying his film forward almost by himself, but Teller couldn’t have done anything more with his part in this movie. He was passionate, delivered his lines perfectly, and he seemed to play the drums as though he wasn’t just a professional, but a veteran of the art. He does a fantastic job, giving everything he can to the film. I would also like to point out the fact that without such a magnificent performance from Teller, Simmons probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off such a great performance himself, because what really drives “Whiplash” to the top is the chemistry between the two, and the way in which they play off one another so perfectly. I’m not saying that Teller would’ve won the Oscar, and I’m not saying that he was better than Jake Gyllenhaal was in “Nightcrawler”, but I am saying that he hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for his role in this film.
The characters themselves are absolutely brilliant, and their interactions with one another make for some of the most compelling moments of cinema I’ve seen in a long time. The fact that both Fletcher and Neiman are completely self-assured and determined to be the best makes their dynamic so much more compelling than it would’ve been if the sadistic Fletcher had simply been bullying an insecure, self-conscious teenager. The two really do go toe-to-toe and as Neiman’s ability grows it almost feels like he has the upper hand! Of course, he doesn’t, because all the power is with Fletcher, and Neiman can only go as far as Fletcher allows him to, but what’s so mesmerising is the fact that Fletcher constantly pushes Neiman to points that a well-formed and stable person just shouldn’t go. The two have an understanding that goes beyond their love of music, and the war they’re having feels so much more epic as a result, leading to one of the most satisfying final scenes I have ever watched at a cinema.
I feel so much love for this movie and I really want that to be shown in this review. I have nothing negative to say about the performances, the script, the cinematography, the direction, or anything else, and I think that all in all this is a better movie than anything I saw last year. The characters are so fully formed and interesting that I completely forgot that I was watching a film; I was completely immersed in the story of a young man attempting to achieve greatness by doing something he loved, and captivated by the psychological battle for recognition he faced with his uncompromising mentor. This is everything a movie should be and more, making it one of my favourite films not just of this year, but of all time.