“Whiplash” is an incredibly tense film about competitiveness, artistic obsession, and the balance (or lack thereof) between dedication and self-destruction. I was literally fulfilling the cliche of being “on the edge of my seat” multiple times in the film, and felt I had the wind taken out of me by the ending.
Milers Teller does strong work as lead Andrew Neiman, but J.K. Simmons is the real stand-out, portraying incredibly harsh jazz instructor Terrence Fletcher. Simmons doesn’t go over-the-top; he constantly portrays Fletcher as a character filled with music (from his body language, to his dialogue, even to the way he moves).
For only his second feature film, director Damien Chazelle created a near-perfect film. It’s a remarkably unpredictable film. This is probably diluted by the time people watch it now, as the film gathered enough fame and claim that many are aware of the premise and Fletcher’s actions, but as someone who was it when it came out with no knowledge except it was critically acclaimed and had jazz drumming, I was constantly being thrown by a loop by the development of the story. It morphs from coming-of-age film, to genre music film, to apparent sports-film-esque self-challenge film, to a dual character study of two damaged men, to something darker and more revelatory. The ending is in some ways cathartic, some ways disturbing, some ways tragic, and in all ways thrilling. The structure is also fascinating in eschewing the typical three-act format; with a fourth act coming after what would serve as the happy resolution to similar films.
Chazelle (who also wrote the film) examines with skill the question of whether it is worth it to in some ways destroy your life, to destroy the relationships around you, to be a shell in everything but the pursuit of art, in order to become “great”. Not everyone (not even the majority of people) would choose the path Neiman takes, but I think Chazelle very much succeeds in demonstrating why he chose it.
I’ve gone this far without mentioning the actual music and soundtrack of the film. Suffice to say, it’s utterly perfect, but it’s so intertwined with the direction and editing that it’s hard to separate it all in my mind. Not many films would be able to display a near ten-minute drum solo sequence and have it literally drawn to the edge of my seat in tension and anticipation, but “Whiplash” seemed to accomplish it easily. The music isn’t really a soundtrack, it IS the film.
The psychodynamics of Neiman and Fletcher’s relationship are fascinating and perfectly performed by the two actors. They really sell the relationship enough to make the ending work as a question to the audience; was it worth it? The cut to Neiman’s father’s horrified face is really the key to the scene.
The film is a brilliant meditation on motivation, ambition, greatness, and passion, but even if it wasn’t, the editing and music alone makes for a fantastic film.
I give it four and a half drumsticks, and a thrown cymbal.