Sunday, January 18, 2015
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Jayson Blair
Running Time: 106 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
***SPOILER WARNING: THIS REVIEW DISCUSSES MAJOR PLOT POINTS IN WHIPLASH, INCLUDING THE ENDING***
"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job."
Whiplash audiences will undoubtedly be split into two groups: Those who find its shocking final minutes uplifting and inspirational, cementing the film as a motivational story of being pushed to become the very best in the face of insurmountable pressure. And others who will view it as a tragedy that warns of the dangers of walking too close to the edge of greatness, and the personal cost and sacrifice that often comes with it. Neither interpretation is necessarily incorrect since second-time director Damien Chazelle drops it all on our laps, our reactions revealing just as much about the viewer as it does the actual film.
After the credits roll it takes a couple of minutes to take a breath and process what's happened, until realizing you've been had. Not tricked or manipulated, but taken on the same exhilarating ride as the protagonist, down an organic, inevitable path we were as complicit in following as he the entire time. The thrilling crescendo is a brave, jaw-dropping sequence that pulls the rug right out from under us, presenting the harsh reality of what this film's really about while posing important questions audiences can ponder indefinitely. Everyone will have a different answers.
The ideas Chazelle presents here aren't ones I can ever recall being addressed in a movie, or at least never like this. The contemplation of whether emotionally traumatic experiences make us stronger or weaker is fertile ground and the mentor-student relationship is rarely explored at levels this complicated or confrontational. Executed within the claustrophobic confines of a psychologically tense thriller and a moving coming-of-age story, it turns the viewer into an active participant, on edge and anxiety-ridden over the developing situation. And at its center are two incredible performances backed by a powerful, jazz-infused soundtrack. Despite concerns it strikes such a nerve that it could be too draining or uncomfortable to even experience again, it's too well performed, written and directed for anyone to deprive themselves of multiple viewings.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a 19-year-old jazz drummer accepted into the top-ranked Shaffer Conservatory in Manhattan where he's starting his fall semester. He spends most of his free time practicing, aspiring to become one of the drumming greats like Buddy Rich, to whom he frequently listens for inspiration. Andrew's dedication and skill catch the eye of renowned Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who holds a surprise audition that results in him joining his exclusive studio band. But it's clear early that Fletcher's instructional methods seem more in line with Full Metal Jacket's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman than a teacher at a prestigious music school. Screaming, cursing, throwing chairs and sometimes even physically assaulting his students, we're never quite sure if he's really this nuts or this is his plan, attempting to draw their best by motivating through fear and abuse.
Fletcher's favorite target is Andrew and we're not sure whether it's that he actually senses potential greatness in him or just smells weakness and needs to pounce. It's the potential promise of the former that keeps Andrew coming back, even as Fletcher uses that drive and desire to manipulate him, dangling a carrot of approval he'll never give and pushing him past his breaking point. It's approval he also doesn't get from his own family and a satisfaction he still can't even feel from being with his new girlfriend. He has to be the best. But what's the cost?
Hearts pound and pulses race when the clock hits 9 AM and the bald-headed, intimidating Fletcher, clad in all black, marches through the door and immediately starts in with the verbal abuse, terrorizing his students. He has huge outbursts, but the tenser and more quotable moments are found in the small, subtle jabs that make that make them feel three feet tall. There's this impending sense of doom and dread in every scene as the band plays, unsure when he's going to cut in and what he's going to say or do when that happens. With its emphasis on perfection and precision, music is the perfect outlet for a authoritarian personality like his, allowing him to pick apart every mistake, no matter how small. And still green as a freshman, Andrew makes many.
While it's frightening and deliriously entertaining to watch Simmons so thoroughly disappear into the skin of someone like this, what's most impressive is how he finds the shading to play him as a complicated person instead of the one-dimensional monster he could have so easily come across as. In the non-classroom scenes, he plays him as almost a regular (at times even empathetic) guy who hugs a friend, jokes around with a kid, strikes up meaningful personal conversations with Andrew and at one point mourns the passing of a former student. We're left wondering whether these are crocodile tears, but I'm speculating they're not. Fletcher does probably care, but for entirely different reasons and not in the same way most people would. He mourns only the loss of talent. What Simmons' work and Chazelle's script bring to Fletcher is this entire persona he puts on when he enters the classroom, almost as if it's his stage.
Those fleeting moments outside the classroom are what offer real psychological insight into Fletcher's philosophy, to the point where we can almost even understand where he's coming from. One such conversation with Andrew results in that controversial quote above, cutting to the crux of the film and going a long way toward explaining his character's motivations. While the obvious comparison point to Simmons' turn is R. Lee Ermey's aforementioned drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket or maybe even John Houseman's law professor in The Paper Chase, even those performances don't carry the complexity and nuance his does here. Rarely has the Best Supporting Actor Oscar been this locked up, to the point that even announcing the winner feels like a formality.
Given Andrew's people pleasing personality and hang-ups, it's easy to see why he'd continue coming back to Fletcher for more, despite all the abuse. Miles Teller, who's often compared to a young John Cusack, usually lends an effortlessly easygoing and likable presence to his characters that's part goofy and confident, while also conveying an underdog quality of someone not yet comfortable in their own skin. Watching his journey is legitimately being put in the shoes of someone to which most can relate, with Simmons' performance becoming only that much stronger because of who's on the other end of it, and vice versa.
At first Andrew's a victim, but eventually his tolerance of it makes him an accessory, the obsession with being the best clouding his judgment of how much he can withstand. His dad Jim (Paul Reiser) is a failed novelist turned teacher who obviously cares deeply for his son, but this kind encouragement isn't going to push him to where he wants to be. A family dinner in which the other Neiman boys' accomplishments are thrown in his face only reinforces that. Besides feeling in need of a strong male role model, he's also at the crucial stage of his life where as much as he fears Fletcher, the idea of "failure" (as society defines it) scares him more.
Andrew could have gotten out of this at any time but doesn't. He keeps coming back for more, in search of approval he'll never get as he inches closer to the deep end. After finally gaining the confidence to ask out a pretty girl who works at the movie theater he frequents with his dad, he's again torn between who he is and eventually wants to be. Glee actress Melissa Benoist has only a few brief scenes as Andrew's girlfriend Nicole, but it's the unforgettable break-up that leaves the largest impression, revealing her as the true collateral damage of his obsession with greatness. Recalling the infamous bar scene that opened The Social Network, Andrew just talks and talks, unaware of the pain he's inflicting with each word. As a devastating mixture of sadness, anger and disbelief wash over her eyes, he keeps saying all the wrong things, pushing her away and moving even further from the Andrew we knew at the beginning of the film. Now fully consumed with becoming the best jazz drummer in the world, everyone else is just dead weight. Even if he manages to mend his fractured family relationships, there won't be another Nicole.
Is there a line? Can you go too far? In Fletcher's world you can never push someone hard enough if they want to be the best, which is a philosophy that fails to acknowledge that different talents respond differently. But according to him, those who can't cut it weren't talented enough to begin with. Andrew gets to a place many have been, regardless of situation or circumstance, traveling so deep down the rabbit hole that he can't step back and assess how far this whole thing has gone. He may yet turn into a legendary drummer, but the envelope keeps getting pushed in terms of how much physical stress he can take (you'll be shocked how far the film goes in this regard) and how long Fletcher can get away with this without professional repercussions. For a little while there, we think Andrew has this epiphany, until Chazelle sets us up for the ultimate knockout blow.
It's in the final ten minutes that Andrew literally sheds his blood, sweat and tears pounding on the skins like never before to enter a performance zone neither he or Fletcher had anticipated was possible. Well, maybe Fletcher did. He delivers a chilling reveal at the beginning of the scene that jump starts the film's ride into masterpiece territory and all we can do is just nervously hang on, anticipating the outcome. He eventually gets what he wanted out of Andrew, confirming his methods pushed the student further than his perceived capabilities, into the realm of greatness. Was he right the entire time? Was this whole thing his plan? They both "win," seemingly extracting exactly what they wanted from each other, but the true long-term effects are yet to be measured.
Chazelle isn't condoning or condemning Fletcher's tactics since that's for us to decide. And this isn't a message movie. But it does speak volumes that at Andrew's lowest, most humiliating point he runs from the arms of his caring father right back to his tormentor, as the film transforms into a kind of educational Stockholm syndrome. And the look of awe on Paul Reiser's face conveys the many differing interpretations of this finale, as his son, if only momentarily, seems to earn the respect and approval of his abusive mentor. When Andrew hits that last drumbeat as we simultaneously cut to black, the film brilliantly withholds the key to solving its puzzle: His future. It's the ultimate twist because it literally redefines the idea of one, deflecting all the responsibility onto audiences attempting to decipher it.
Adapted from his own short film and as tight and carefully constructed as the jazz compositions you'll now likely be hearing in your nightmares, Chazelle accomplishes through kinetic editing and breakneck direction, an achievement that transcends its modest indie roots to become something truly great and universal. He creates a world in which it doesn't matter whether the events taking place could actually happen, because within the confines of this environment, they do. All the ideas and human complications Whiplash touches on are real, with its 106 minutes flashing by in what seems like an instant. It's not just a great film and the finest in a very strong year, but a twisted personality test that leaves you emotionally exhausted and physically spent.