Andrew Neyman wants to become a legendary jazz drummer. That’s almost all there is to him. In telling his story, Whiplash appropriately wastes absolutely no time making this clear. It opens on Neyman, performed by the reliably amiable Miles Teller, playing his heart out on the drums, and there’s barely a moment in the film where Neyman’s drive to be the best is sidelined by anything else. His mission is singular and uncomplicated, and as a result so is Whiplash, a movie that is astoundingly effective at inducing in the audience the same metaphorical tunnel vision that keep Neyman barreling forward towards his goal.
As soon as the film begins, we’re introduced not just to Neyman but band instructor Terence Fletcher, an instant classic movie villain. Like Teller’s character, Fletcher strives for perfection and will stop at nothing to achieve it, except his students are the ones he wants to perfect rather than himself. He goes about this by verbally and emotionally abusing his pupils. But scarier still (and maybe a little admirably), he truly believes that its all for a good cause. In a lot of ways, he’s like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, but if he had been the entire movie (and boy, do I wish he had been).
Playing Fletcher with endless charisma and uncompromising brutality is J.K. Simmons, an actor who finally, finally gets to own a movie instead of just adding subtly to them. Simmons’ over-the-top performance always borders precariously on becoming cartoonish, but he adds enough small, incredibly human nuances to the role to keep that from ever happening.
It’s the dynamics between the two characters, both deadly in their persistence, that make for some of the most electrifying, uncomfortable, frightening and somehow even inspiring scenes of the year. There’s a constant sense of danger in the air, despite Neyman’s stakes being more existential than anything else. You feel Neyman’s yearning so strongly that it feels like you’ve been with him since the first time he picked up drumsticks. When Simmons crosses the line (and he does so constantly), you want nothing more than to see him taken down.
This is a remarkable script, tight and efficient, uninterested in showing or telling anything that isn’t directly pertinent to Neyman’s musical conquest or Fletcher’s sadistic attempts to push him to his absolute limit and beyond. Admittedly, the nuts and bolts of the plot are continually predictable, especially the obstacles that Neyman faces. It was to the point where I called some very big surprises right before they happened, yet the movie is so good at keeping the audience invested in nothing but Neyman’s unbreakable determination that the film’s cliches were easy to push aside and ignore.
But the real key to the film’s success is its understanding that the characters need to drive the plot, not the other way around. This is best demonstrated when a love interest subplot enters the equation early on, obviously something that audience would be expecting because a) it’s a movie, and b) how could Miles Teller not have a lady in his life? But Neyman sidelines her as soon as he realizes it distracts from his singular goal. It’s as if he’s such a force of nature that he denies the script itself from doing what scripts usually do. That’s how single-minded he is.
The one and only way in which the movie let me down isn’t so much a flaw as it is an intentionally nagging ambiguity that I simply don’t appreciate. Chazelle never takes a coherent stand in regards to whether or not Fletcher or Neyman are right or wrong in the pure obsessiveness of their pursuits and the lengths to which they are willing to go to achieve what is arguably an egocentric goal. Of course, its laudable that the film allows every audience member room to invest their own value system into the film and thus leave the film with a completely unique different understanding of these characters. But the moral ambivalence of the movie made the ending, which should be the final emotional punch, feel the tiniest bit anti-climactic.
As you can imagine, there’s a ton of jazz in the film, which is all great and serves as an extra layer to draw you into the musical world. The sound editing is also incredibly effective. As a musician himself, director Damian Chazelle understands that the use of silence is just as important as the use of sound and some sequences are incredibly sophisticated in how image and noise are blended together. The movie also looks remarkably good, with dark and moody tones (and a lot of glowing yellows) very reminiscent of The Social Network, another award-worthy film focusing on a too-driven genius who descends into madness on a college campus.
Whiplash is, both metaphorically and literally, a tale of blood, sweat and tears. Like Fletcher, it grabs you and holds you with an unusual fierceness, refusing to let go no matter how much you squirm. You don’t have to know anything about music to understand how hard Neyman wants to succeed, and you don’t have to know anything about movies to understand how mesmerizing the film is. All of the parts, but especially the screenplay in conjunction with Simmons’ jaw-dropping performance, fit together like — I’M GONNA SAY IT! — a symphony orchestra. The movie is like — YOU CAN’T STOP ME!– a well-tuned instrument. But all the lazy musical metaphors in the world won’t change the fact that this is pure dramatic filmmaking at its best, and one of the year’s best movies hands down.
Score: 4.5 out of 5