by Britt of Eclectic Pop
Blood, sweat and tears punctuate a dizzying tale of ambitious pursuit amidst enduring turmoil. Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is an aspiring jazz drummer at a New York music conservatory, when he converges with caustic instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Neimann is an eager pupil ready to be the greatest and Fletcher is determined to whip him into shape or so it might appear at first glance.
From the film’s opening moments, director Damien Chazelle hones in on the two figures who will come to dominate the screen for the nearly two hours to come. While their demeanors couldn’t be more strikingly dissimilar, a closer glimpse reveals a shared strand of traits. They’re both perfectionists with loads of confidence, unwavering ego and relentless ambition. Some could argue they’re different sides of the same coin, only separated by a generation gap.
Chazelle makes it clear from the outset that this isn’t a heartwarming tale of the young hot shot softening the heart of the hardnosed teacher. At times played as a cat-and-mouse thriller and other times a laser-focused meditation on what drives people to seek fame or more to the point, infamy; “Whiplash” is a character study first and foremost. Is it Neimann’s abandonment by his mother that has elicited his desire to be a great or was it the catalyst to an already latent desire that had existed within him from inception? That is one of the lesser explored questions explored here.
As nuanced and natural as the film appears, it pushes credulity at times. The idea that a tyrannical teacher as abusive as Fletcher would be left to his own devices within a music school, borders on preposterous, especially given the era it takes place. In the 2010's a perturbed student could easily use his cell phone as a recording device and put Fletcher out of business within the time it takes to press “send”.
In the second act, Chazzelle veers the film readily off course with a melodramatic plot twist that exaggerates the proceedings past believability. It’s so heavy handed that it shatters the realism Chazzelle had worked so hard to produce leading up to it. In the realm of the dramatic student/teacher genre, “Whiplash” shares a lot in common with its predecessors. The obsessive nature of the protagonist in “Shine”, the determined student and plot denouement of “Center Stage” and the acidic dynamic between master and pupil in “Paper Chase”. While this genre is prone to the same formulaic trappings that any other genre faces, “Whiplash” diverges from the typical heroic student trope to deliver a lead character that is not all that likable. Andrew is cavalier; insensitive to the feelings of others, solely focused on his own goals and not concerned with how his vision affects others. One could make a strong case that he is afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons lead this intense two-hander with masterful depth. Teller makes Neimann watchable, a task that in lesser hands would’ve been impossible. He puts his charm and bravado to good use, bringing a dimension to Andrew that elevates him past a one-note Millennial music snob with an ego problem. Teller plays Neimann’s drive with a vulnerable go-for-broke sincerity that makes one feel for him, even when Neimann hasn’t earned the empathy.
J.K. Simmons is spellbinding yet again as the blistering Terence Fletcher, a character very similar to his breakout role as J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider-Man” franchise. As Fletcher, Simmons is electric; a human scorpion stinging and eviscerating anyone who gets in his way. Simmons brings a subtle humanity to the role that makes Fletcher breath with plausibility, an impressive feat. Simmons is one of the best supporting actors to ever grace the screen and his awards wins for his work here, were well deserved.
While Paul Reiser is given little to do as Andrew's concerned dad, he sells what he is given despite an underdeveloped father/son bond that could’ve used a little more focus. There seems to be an entire film nestled in their dynamic alone. Superb direction from Damien Chazzelle charges the film with a kinetic energy as his whip pans create a third person narrative on an otherwise claustrophobic, first person account. Entertaining, it moves at a brisk pace that hits the crucial notes along the away. Jazz music with its lingering tempo serves the film with its non-stop momentum. At the core, it is the stellar performances and riveting direction that pushes “Whiplash” to levels of greatness. Rating: 7.5/10
Britt is the creator of Eclectic Pop, the blog where pop culture gets eclectic by highlighting the best in movies, music, TV, and books. She is a contributing film critic for Following Films and guest on War Machine vs. War Horse. Below you can find the review from that podcast: