Generally speaking, movies about teacher/student relationships in the world of jazz music aren’t typically described by words like “incendiary,” “vicious” or “masterpiece.” ‘Whiplash’ is an exception and easily one of the best movies of the year.
The film opens in a prestigious New York music school where Andrew (Miles Teller) has recently enrolled with the goal of being the world’s greatest living jazz drummer. He’s spotted practicing late one night by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s most notorious teacher and the leader of its award-winning jazz band. He asks Andrew to join his group and on the first day takes him aside to chat about his interest in music and his background. Then, once the second class starts, Fletcher pulls prison tactics and uses every bit of information that he got out of Andrew while playing “nice guy” to tear him down in front of the entire band. From there, the film turns into a game of psychological warfare between a pathological teacher who believes the only proper way to inspire is through fear and intimidation, and a student so determined to achieve greatness that he’ll suffer through any torment and shut down anyone who stands in his way.
About as far from inspirational teacher nonsense like ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ as ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is, ‘Whiplash’ is a nasty, harsh and thrillingly unpredictable character drama. Scenes don’t just sting; they physically hurt in intensity. The battle between characters is mirrored between the lead actors and probably ends in a draw. Simmons takes on a role that could so easily have been overdone through grandstanding, and tackles it with a musician’s meticulous sense of tempo and restraint. The character is defined by seething rage and unexpected outbursts, yet Simmons always seems in control, carefully mapping out the actual human beneath the sneering exterior. When he explodes, all of the air is sucked out of the theater and his performance is more terrifying than any movie monster that has made it to screens in time for Halloween. Never for a second does it feel like overacting or caricature. There’s a real tragic person underneath, and even if that person is an asshole, the audience at least gets a sense of why and how. It’s the type of role and performance that can earn a veteran character actor a long-overdue string of awards, and hopefully Simmons has plenty of accolades coming his way.
Teller matches Simmons in their power dance at every stage. His character remains more empathetic than Simmons’ shouting music monster, but that’s more a result of the fact that viewers spend more time with him, rather than any sort of coddled, manipulative ploys for sympathy. Quite the opposite, Teller is more than happy to dwell on his character’s most selfish impulses and repulsive outbursts. There are times when he’s just as difficult to watch as Simmons, but never in a way that extends beyond the realm of believability. Both characters are too complex to garner an easy response from viewers and the performances follow suit.
At its core, the film is about any person’s quest for greatness and how such a quest involves selfish, vile behavior. There’s no easy way to achieve such goals. Coddling teachers spoil talent and nice humanitarians lack the tunnel vision necessary to shut out everyone and everything around them in pursuit of greatness. ‘Whiplash’ is not exactly the type of comforting fairy tale one normally sees in this genre, and it’s an infinitely stronger film for it.
Hard though it might be to believe about such a confident, unpredictable, mature and searing film, ‘Whiplash’ is actually the debut of writer-director Damien Chazelle. He instantly establishes himself as one of the most promising American filmmakers alive with an exquisitely constructed screenplay that dodges convention and reaches for harsh human truths, along with an expertly shot and mounted movie. While most of the film is understandably low-key and performance-based, Chazelle allows himself some grand flourishes in one viscerally mounted car crash and some of the most effectively edited music performance scenes in many years. It all builds towards a beautifully conceived and executed climax that mixes every potent element Chazelle has juggled throughout the running into an explosively emotional send-off that ends at the perfect moment.
‘Whiplash’ isn’t just the single greatest directorial debut of 2014, it’s also easily one of the most original and satisfying films of the year, full stop. Seek it out and see it immediately. You’ll be hearing a great deal of praise heaped onto the movie as awards season gears up. For once, all of the hype is deserved.