‘Whiplash’ a mean and refreshing take on self-determination

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash"
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”

Whiplash
Directed and written by Damien Chazelle
USA, 2014

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash centers on a young drummer at a prestigious Manhattan music academy who finds a caustic instructor willing to do anything to urge him toward greatness. This may sound like the beginning of a sentimental, feel-good movie in which encouragement and perseverance win out. But Chazelle’s character study isn’t in the least bit evocative of Mr. Holland’s Opus or Stand and Deliver. Instead, the unrelenting verbal abuse heaped on the student vacillates between hilarious and needlessly demeaning. The ceaseless degradation creates a gray area of quasi-fulfillment where the cinematic rewards are anything but pure. Whiplash keeps the audience on its toes, never letting you think for a moment that the road to artistic success is easy or that one’s competition isn’t eagerly awaiting your total failure for their gain.

Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Project X) is Andrew, a burgeoning college student who forsakes any social life in order to become the best jazz drummer the world has ever seen. With acceptance into an elite jazz ensemble, he is pushed to his mental and physical limits by musical mentor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). It’s unclear whether Fletcher has the best of intentions for Andrew or may just be cultivating the young man’s talent in order to take credit for the music he is able to siphon from him. Simmons’ teacher is a bit watered down from his portrayal of the maliciously self-centered Vern Schillinger on HBO’s Oz but his remarkable ability to time and time again persuasively lead the audience to believe that he is wholeheartedly whoever he says he is in the moment is as acute as ever. His forceful and smart deliveries come across as refined even when the content is as schmaltzy as it was in The Music Never Stopped. Here his character thrives on picking apart any perceived weaknesses in his pupils. He uses their failures to further fuel their desire for success or completely dispose of them. There is no nurturing in his process, just cold assessment. Much of Fletcher’s verbal abuse leaves one to wonder how much positive professional impact could actually emerge from his abject psychological warfare on Andrew and the rest of his students. Does he illicit sick pleasure from terrifying these vulnerable artists or is it just a facade to obscure a soft heart that would only foster lesser musicians? Whiplash doesn’t hold up teachers as noble, salt of the earth educators who don’t still have visions of glory for themselves. Fletcher pointedly has a twinkle of animus in his eyes that denotes something left unfulfilled in his life that perhaps is partially remedied by through putting these kids through living hell. Fletcher’s nit-picking and foul-mouthed tirades are designed to delight the audience with his unfiltered cruelness. Although rooting for Andrew to triumph, watching Fletcher go off and wallowing in his callous remarks are what elevate the film beyond the sappy idealism we’ve seen so often before in coming of age movies.

Fletcher’s demands are so overwhelming that Andrew bloodies his hands with relentless practice in the pursuit of improving of his drumming technique before the group participates in a renowned competition. Andrew is usually on the receiving end of the teacher’s abuse but his steely determination makes him a good match for Fletcher’s snide remarks and flippant dismissal of hard work. The film is so taken with Andrew’s perfectionism that it doesn’t spend much time deepening a sense of anything else going on in the world. He insulates himself from affection and absorbs the hatred of Fletcher like a sponge. Deflecting Fletcher’s jabs is ammunition for his drive and with no allotted time to relax, Andrew is captivatingly tightly wound and ready to pounce on anyone or anything that appears to be in his way. Andrew and Fletcher certainly aren’t inherently likable characters but their machinations are thoroughly engrossing as they strive to preserve their fragile egos. The mutual absence of any room in their lives for caring people to create meaning is a provocative enough of a concept to keep the single-minded narrative going at a pleasing pace. 

Those who aren’t into jazz won’t feel alienated by the content. The repetitive playing of music is merely the focal point around which Andrew and Fletcher contend. There is a respect for the difficulty of the music and for the towering geniuses who have come before him but the source of Andrew’s momentum is found in attaining recognition. That recognition is kept tantalizingly just out of reach by Fletcher. J.K. Simmons’ ferocity is unnerving and definitively what inflames the suspense of the movie but the tête-à-tête also creates a showcase for the nearly unknown Teller’s convincing yearning for immortality. Together the actors nail down a friction filled chemistry that is a cut-throat take on inspirational education stories. Propelled by animosity instead of friendship, Whiplash succeeds in channeling bloodthirsty self-determination into a viscous little cinematic package.

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