This exceptional 'jazz thriller' chronicles the terrifying lengths people will go to in pursuit of a goal.
October 20, 2014
Whiplash is a film about a drummer, and it might just be the scariest thing you see all year. It's not Annabelle scary, as in paranormal pant-soiling scary, nor is it Silence of the Lambs scary, aka psychological pant-peeing. It's more disturbing, a sort of 'do whatever it takes', Talented Mr Ripley kind of film, chronicling the terrifying lengths people will go to in pursuit of a goal. It's a 'jazz thriller', really, and it's an exceptional, engrossing movie.
Narrow in its focus, Whiplash concerns an ambitious young drummer named Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first-year student at a prestigious New York music academy. When the school's premier conductor, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), invites him to join the marquee jazz ensemble, Neyman quickly finds himself embroiled in a gripping, exhausting, unsettling and even violent clash of egos driven by Fletcher's unyielding pursuit of excellence and Neyman's own determination to be the next musical great. Chairs are thrown, punches are thrown, and in any given practice session the trinity of 'blood, sweat and tears' becomes almost mandatory.
The one small mercy for panic-stricken viewers who found The Exorcist to be an exercise in endurance rather than enjoyment was that the terror occurred predominantly within the confines of the bedroom. You knew when to be afraid, and in Whiplash that room is Fletcher's rehearsal space. What ought to be the epitome of cool is instead the Roman colosseum, with Fletcher its sitting Emperor. One of the bad ones. More Caligula than Caesar. He rules through fear and exploits his students' aspirations as a means of ensuring his own reputation remains one of excellence and achievement.
A few minor roles notwithstanding (Paul Reiser has a nice turn as Neyman's softly spoken father), this is a movie focussed on the performances by Teller and Simmons, and they're both first rate. Teller spent hours on the kit every single day rehearsing for the role, and his percussive skills are as impressive as his acting ones. Both arrogance and insecurity bubble just beneath his character's surface, and his descent into physical and mental ruin is painfully believable.
Opposite him, Simmons is a powerhouse of brute force and bravura; a fedora-wearing, baton-wielding drill-sergeant right out of Full Metal Jacket. He bullies, he abuses and he hurls bigoted slanders so often it's almost as though that's how he breathes. The explanation he offers is as unapologetic as it is simple: greatness only comes from being pushed beyond the comfort zone and penetrating the unknown.
For a jazz movie there's surprisingly little of it, and while the final performance is nothing short of extraordinary, the lack of jam sessions and gigs feels at odds with Neyman's professed love of the art and his dogged pursuit of pre-eminence. The film's conclusion, too, is troubling, for while it delights on the musical front, conceptually it appears to reinforce what is plainly a flawed and dangerous approach to nurturing talent. Still, this a showcase of two outstanding performances and a clear standout in what has otherwise been a largely mediocre run of films in 2014.
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