Written and Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Although only just going wide-release now, it seems that another review of Whiplash is a bit late to the party already thrown in its favour; the streamers have been swept up, the champagne glasses washed and drying and the poster so laden with glowing recommendations that there’s physically no room left on the one-sheet for any more to be said. A cursory glance of the promotional material and a perusal of the more gushing reviews will have you thinking that this is the feel-good movie of the year: Rocky with drumsticks set in the halls of Fame school. Therein maybe lies the film’s most laudable accomplishment, the ability to be a mirror for whatever sentiment you choose to see within its coming-of-age tale, because to me the conclusion of Whiplash serves up a downbeat tale of art destroyed by ambition and human warmth replaced by the clinical application of technique.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is the awkward drumming prodigy at a prestigious NYC music school, where the ultimate accolade is to be invited into the school’s elite competitive jazz ensemble, overseen with sadistic authority by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The iron fist which wields the baton has a fearsome reputation but nothing can prepare Andrew for just how extreme Fletcher’s methods are in pursuit of excellence from his pupils or what the personal cost to both men will ultimately be.
Never in dispute will be the performances of the two leads. Teller is building on his slighter turns in The Spectacular Now and the Divergent series with a character here which is positively schizophrenic: a soft-spoken introvert who becomes a sinew-straining, sweat-streaming demon on the drum stool, literally bloodying his sticks and cymbals from open-weeping calluses. His drive to excel – “I want to be one of the greats,” he tells his girlfriend as he dumps her in a speech lifted straight from The Social Network asshole playbook – has no cost so high that’s he not willing to pay. Andrew truly is an asshole in the Zuckerberg mould, and no doubt was sculpted that way by the filmmakers.
In Terence Fletcher however, he finds the perfect foil to both drive and derail his smugness. It’s a career-defining turn by Simmons – Juno’s dad flipped one-eighty into Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant territory. All the more disturbing is that Fletcher seems to have a genuine soul buried under his bristling, abrasive outer hide, albeit one he reveals only in instances which are shown to be calculated: in one scene he listens sympathetically as a student shares some intimate family details, in the next he’s using the same details to flay the boy in front of the entire class for mistiming the tempo. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’,” he reasons by way of excusing his abusive, homophobic, racist, frankly criminal (hitting your students is a crime even in Movieville, no?) teaching methods. He is truly a monster to behold, ever commanding your attention even as his behavior grows more repellant and inexcusable.
Which brings us to the final showdown and that subjective mirror I mentioned earlier: I’ve
heard the climax of Whiplash called ‘life-affirming’, ‘goes out on a high’ and so on. I just don’t get that. In the end, Fletcher remains a vindictive spiteful control freak, Andrew a driven blinkered asshole. They get what they both deserve, and perversely what they appear to want and need from each other. It’s a Pyrrhic win-win for the two adversaries, achieved in a way that seems to run contrary to the whole ethos of jazz music as I understand it. It’ll make an interesting double-feature with Dead Poets Society and when you watch, I’ll leave it to you to decide who you’d rather inspire your kids in the classroom and be their pals outside of it.
But those performances? “Out standing!” — Mike Reilly