Based on his 2013 short film of the same name, Damien Chazelle (Grand Piano) writes and directs Whiplash, a drama slash thriller set in a music school. Now, on paper, the concept sounds interesting, but nothing much more than that, so I was intrigued, but nothing more than that, before sitting down to watch this film.
We meet Andrew (Miles Teller), a promising and talented young drummer who is in his first year at a prestigious music school. He finds himself chosen to be part of an exclusive group of musicians that are under the wing of a respected professor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). He isn’t your ordinary professor though, and his students know it. Using aggressive, harsh and borderline abusive behaviour, Andrew finds himself being pushed to his limit by Fletcher, who we wonder whether wants to destroy or nurture the passion of his students. Andrew, meanwhile, juggling this intense journey at school, finds it increasingly more difficult to handle the other areas of his life.
Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) and J.K. Simmons (Oz) put in some incredible performances here, performances that went above and beyond the call of duty. The story, simplistic in many ways, is paced perfectly and looks at the strange relationship between student, Andrew, and teacher, Fletcher. The way Fletcher screams at, throws chairs at, grits his teeth at and forces his students to stay until the early hours while he makes them repeat their work until they are on par with what he considers worth his time, shows him to be a man of intense passion, and peculiar ideals. It is so intense, and Teller is brilliant as the tortured student, losing himself in a world of blistered fingers, sweat, tears and loneliness, and Simmons, as Fletcher, is amazing. I have been a fan of Simmons since seeing him in Oz years ago, but this is his best performance to date, and one that will surely see him win more and more praise and awards. He is vile, at times, brutal, and unforgiving, and yet we cannot stop listening to his words and hoping that he gives Andrew a little bit of slack.
The small cast (beyond Simmons and Teller, there are only a couple of side characters that aren’t musicians, which include Paul Reiser as Andrews father, Jim, and Melissa Benoist as love interest to Andrew, Nicole) do a wonderful job, and the writing is addicting to listen to and absolutely brilliant. The direction is also top notch, and makes me curious to see what Chazelle does next. Except for Chazelle and the cast though, there are other stars at play here. The sound department do a magnificent job, and allow long moments of musical sound, as well as sound heard by our characters, the ringing in their ears, the booming of their heartbeats. It is incredible to behold. The film editing by Tom Cross (Crazy Heart) is on par with the sound design too, his cutting between visuals of instruments, facial expressions, beads of sweat, drops of blood, it is just perfect and increases the intensity of the whole experience. Mention also needs to be made about cinematographer Sharone Meir (Mean Creek), who helped the film look as good as it looked, and as interesting as it looked too. It is so beautiful to look at in its minimalism and darkness.
I have nothing bad to say about this film. I have tried to think of why perhaps it doesn’t work, but it does, in every conceivable fashion. This is one of those times when you know, as the credits roll at the end, that you’ve witnessed something truly special, something timeless and fascinating. Intense, gorgeous, with dark humour and elements of psycho-thriller mixed in between the plucks of strings and bashes of drums, Whiplash is more than deserving of the applause and awards and nominations. One of the best films I will see this year, and one look forward to revisiting soon. Wow.