A tense, astonishing drama about precision, obsession, and determination, Whiplash seizes you from its opening moment – a snare drum, like a quickening heartbeat, over black – to the final crash of cymbals.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neyman, an awkward drumming prodigy who finds himself thrown in at the deep end when he’s invited to join a band led by conductor Miles Fletcher. A gaunt, black-suited perfectionist, Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) is evocative of many prior movie villains.
One of his first appearances – as a shadow through glass – could well be that of Harry Lime; if Lime was a bald-headed prick. Another in his office, shot in soft focus, back turned to the camera, summons up the hunch-backed figure of Max Schreck; most notably, Fletcher’s (often hilariously) vitriolic abuse makes R. Lee Emery look mild-mannered by comparison. It’s a role Simmons seems born to play.
Whiplash is about the cost of genius: as Neyman first strives for, then fights to keep, first chair, against the cruel mind-games and machinations of the manipulative Fletcher, we come to understand the antisocial nature of musical brilliance; even if we can’t appreciate the more technical aspects, the music serves as an extension of Neyman, and every single drumbeat could mean his destruction.
Rivaling Raging Bull on the bodily fluids count – hands bleeding, sweat pouring – Whiplash is a ferocious two-hander, which, though seen from Teller’s perspective, provides balance to its opposing viewpoints. On one hand, there’s Neyman’s father (Paul Reiser), a failed writer whose wife left him and who teaches high school creative writing – he serves as the embodiment of Neyman’s own future should he fail.
On the other, there’s Fletcher, who claims the two most destructive words in the English language are “good job”. Fletcher is the driving force and Neyman a worthy object to be propelled.
So Neyman practices, and he practices; he grows cold and hard. The primal ecstasy on his face as he plays becomes agony during a torturous round robin between him and two other would-be drummers. Teller’s scenes with potential love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist) have a light, jazzy feeling to them, which counterpoints the unbridled intensity of the music classroom and help to showcase this momentous transformation.
Damien Chazelle’s direction – as with his screenplay – is exacting; gliding and jittering like the very music it seeks to capture. Twisted and compelling, Whiplash could be an unexpected Oscar contender – Simmons, Teller, and Chazelle all deserve their plaudits.
In the end, the film itself virtuosically transcends the malevolence and the rivalry, the self-destructive spiral of teacher and student; though it’s unlikely you’ll ever want to pick up an instrument again.