Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, now conquering New York after wowing audiences at film festivals all the way back to Sundance last winter, opens with a title card over black while a few taps on a snare drum build into a furious drum roll. It’s a fine way to symbolize the conflict at the center of the film, which accelerates to ‘furious’ so quickly and easily that it’s barely perceptible. Tension builds slowly in an empathic crescendo, before snapping over and over again like the repeated pounding of a cymbal. Whatever arguments this film may inspire, it’s clear that there is no other film in existence which makes music so thrilling.
The film follows Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a student of the drums at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. Andrew catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the leader of the school’s competition band, who invites him up to a seat at the big time. Fletcher’s tyrannical teaching style pushes Andrew to his physical and mental breaking points, and then well beyond. The resulting story is told with an energy and a passion that powers it through its logical failings; the idea that Andrew would even be allowed on stage covered in blood, as he is for one key performance, is ludicrous, but the scene absolutely works in the moment.
Chazelle, who was himself a competitive drummer in high school, finds a number of ways to keep Andrew’s internal tension visually fascinating. His camera loves the drums to a degree that only a drummer can: lingering on the way that the skin of the drum becomes worn and tattered at the striking point, focusing on skin rubbed raw between the thumb and forefinger. The big performance scenes are shot in the style of an action thriller, cutting on each pop of the drum like John Woo cutting from gunshot to gunshot.
And, much like an action film, the exciting camera-work can often carry the audience right past the fact that one of its major characters is nigh irredeemable. Is Fletcher the villain of the story, or not? The first time he barks a homophobic insult at one of his band members, or when he lies to Andrew and toys with his first-chair status, it’s tempting to just write him off as a horrible person. But Chazelle presents him in the same way that most students experience their teachers: with only the most subtle suggestion that he’s tough because he cares. It’s just enough for reasonable doubt, without hitting the ‘inspirational teacher’ meme on the nose with a sledgehammer.
Furthermore, Teller is quite good at suggesting that Andrew may have wanted to be under Fletcher’s thumb the entire time. He treats his family and his would-be girlfriend caustically, but not in a way that is directly inspired by Fletcher. He does not abuse or intimidate, he simply displays a drive that can be taken a few different ways: possibly a talent that was just looking for the right teacher to inspire it, or possibly a fragile personality that could break under the right amount of mental torture, and be persuaded by Fletcher’s argument that he’s just trying to find the next Buddy Rich.
Yet, Simmons is so good at playing tyrannical contempt that the film could also be read as a sort of cult conversion. Fletcher rules by terror, finding the weak points of his charges and using them for public humiliation. Cults do the same thing, as a method of establishing control over people while desensitizing the impulses to rebel and fight back. While this film’s climax can be read as a rousing, crowd-pleasing moment, it’s not that far from the completion of a brainwashing, where Fletcher manages to turn Andrew into a perfect little robot while letting him believe that he was doing it for himself the entire time.
That’s the beauty of Whiplash: even if Chazelle only meant for this film to be read one way, he created a film subtle enough to allow for multiple interpretations. There are a great many stories which rely on the old saying that every villain is a hero in his own mind, and a great many in which a tough teacher inspires his toughest student, but very few which can be both at once and still retain their crowd-pleaser status. Let Whiplash wash over you, let its visuals make your heart pound even as its music sweeps you away, and you won’t be disappointed.
— Mark Young