Whiplash (2014): Kinetic, funny and disturbing look at ambition’s dark side

I friggin’ love Whiplash. Arguably a redundant proclamation seeing as it’s not a new release, and why the hell would I spend time writing about a movie I don’t like unless it was topical, right? Nevertheless, I do, indeed, friggin’ love it. Incredibly, it was only the second feature-length directorial effort of Damien Chazelle, and while he may have rolled out some intriguing work since then in the form of La La Land and First Man, he has yet to replicate the seamless, intoxicating fervour of his sophomore offering. I published a far-too-compact review of this very film on the site when I started many moons ago and, as I did with my all-time favourite Thief recently, have felt compelled to flesh out my feelings on this wondrous slice of cinema in the way I should have done the first time around.

Opening contemporaneously in New York City, Whiplash introduces us to Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young man undertaking his first year at the Shaffer Conservatory, a highly reputable college of music and the axiomatic point-of-entry for all ambitious instrumentalists. A passionate (or, to put it in fair and balanced terms, obsessed) drummer from the time he was a toddler, Andrew practices relentlessly in his single-minded mission to achieve the same kind of status as his hero, the virtually mythical jazz-drumming titan Buddy Rich. He is unequivocally dedicated to his dream, but it has come at the expense of any normative human relationships save for the bond with his father Jim (Paul Reiser). Consequently, our hero is a pretty awkward guy, and more than a little narcissistic.

One day in class, Andrew is invited to a rehearsal by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the conductor of Shaffer’s Studio Band and a boss-level figure in terms of the desperation with which the student body desires his professional approval. Andrew and Fletcher’s first meeting technically occurs in the opening scene when he stumbles upon the budding percussion maniac practicing in the conservatory after hours, so Andrew is naturally exhilarated at the prospect of a second chance to impress him after a less-than-promising initial demonstration. As soon as he enters the rehearsal room of Fletcher’s famed ensemble, Andrew starts to pick up on the fact that there’s something not quite right about this group. The majority of the students are quiet, standoffish and riddled with tension, and the reason for the uneasy atmosphere is brought bluntly to the viewer’s attention in good time. Fletcher, occupying a station of great esteem though he might, is nothing short of a mind-breaking sociopath. Unpredictably launching into tirades of shocking emotional and physical abuse, Fletcher is an unyieldingly strict fanatic in his vision to maintain a disciplined and perfect jazz ensemble, making no secret of the vituperative disdain he holds for anyone who isn’t up to scratch.

Determined to keep his head and his work ethic up under Fletcher’s brutal and unorthodox tutelage, Andrew tries to take it in his stride by practicing harder every day and even finds time to begin courting Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a sweet cinema cashier who had regularly given him butterflies during his regular excursions to the movies with his dad. Unfortunately, Andrew’s tenacity in improving his music game and converting Fletcher’s toxicity into motivation soon begins to sour all other arenas in the young man’s life. Growing ever more competitive and callous towards his fellow students and the people who love him, Andrew is driven to the brink of madness trying to appease his failure-intolerant nutter of a bandleader and, even if he does achieve greatness, the latter’s horrifying methods will leave his personality irrevocably changed for the worse. Is it really worth it?

At 106 minutes, Whiplash feels so much shorter due to the pitch-perfect sharpness and intensity of its screenplay. Rather than deluge the audience with expository sequences, Chazelle communicates the drives, desires, motivations, and goals of Andrew and Fletcher in scenes that briskly escort the viewer through a gamut of embarrassment, extreme anxiety and even plaintive rumination with no hint of outstaying their welcome. Andrew’s worsening hubris is illuminated in a brilliantly cringe-inducing dinner scene with his father and some other relatives, his defiant claim that he would ”rather die drunk and broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was” simultaneously inspiring awe at his steadfast self-confidence and a wish for the pretentious dickhead to pipe down. At the outset, he seems like a pretty decent and reserved kid who easily yields empathy, but as the story progresses, his vexatious conversational awkwardness, lack of emotional intelligence and snide contempt for anyone who isn’t conducive to his wants makes it nigh on impossible to root for him, even if he is contending with Fletcher’s utterly insane standards. Teller occupies the role without a hitch, his knack for switching between shy discomfort and flippant superciliousness ensuring an immersive and infuriating authenticity.

Teller is absolutely fantastic, but the man of the hour, the lynchpin who grounds the piece as a break-neck exercise in psychological degradation and took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his trouble, is the one and only JK Simmons. While preparing for the role of Fletcher, Simmons intensively trained to enlarge his overall musculature, deftly augmenting an appearance that was already severe courtesy of his bald dome and rugged, dead-eyed countenance. His abrasive verbal style ensured much cartoonish and deadpan hilarity in his portrayals as Spider-Man‘s J Jonah Jameson and the CIA chief in the Coen’s Burn After Reading, but Whiplash is the moment where he elevates that dryly amusing causticity to the realm of sheer terror. Fletcher initially toys with Andrew by inquiring about his background and imploring him to take it easy because the rhythm will find him when he puts his mind to it, only for the ‘pretty cool dude’ demeanour to give way to face-slapping, chair-hurling and sadistically mocking outbursts regarding Andrew’s single-parent upbringing and Jewish heritage. Simmons does a fabulous job of launching the viewer into a mental-emotional whirlwind, unsure of whether to believe his claim that forgoing any compromise is essential to his philosophy of keeping jazz alive, or if he’s actually a knowingly malicious and destructive prick who gets off on the misery that his students endure.

Reiser and Benoist have ample emotional effect even if they don’t occupy the screen that much, the film retaining its power by essentially being streamlined to the battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher. Contrary to other critics who have designated Benoist’s character as negligible because she only shares a couple of substantive moments with Teller on-screen, I found the inverse to be true. The pair’s first date unambiguously conveys her as a likeable, down-to-earth personality and Andrew’s chance for a stable and reciprocally supportive relationship, and witnessing his insensitivity towards her provides a frustrating and painful illumination of how wasting meaningful opportunities can prove to be an ass-biter in the long run, not that he really deserves her anyway. It is in lockstep with the film’s comprehensively nerve-wracking atmosphere, proceedings seem to move at a million miles an hour, drenched in sweat and palpitating because that’s precisely how Andrew’s mind works. Fletcher accepts nothing less than pushing oneself to the utmost physical and mental limits and the picture flows conducively. Sharone Meir’s cinematography deftly captures the lively and rapturous movements of ensemble practice before switching to the visual language of thrillers in claustrophobic and virtually intolerable sequences that drive home Fletcher’s raw, unencumbered perfectionism.

Richard Brody’s critique in The New Yorker is certainly edifying in regards to jazz history and subculture, but I vehemently disagree with his assertion that Whiplash ”doesn’t honour cinema”, and I feel that his charge of Chazelle endorsing Fletcher’s behaviour is myopic. The film doesn’t purport to be an incisive and accurate document of the jazz world, it is very much about abusive power and control and how obsessive self-interest can deplete the humanity and love of craft that should be part of one’s given art, mildly autobiographical insofar as Chazelle’s real-life experiences in a hyper-competitive jazz band where toxic pissing contents came before the music, a time in his life where he felt nothing but constant dread.

I never once understood the reductive reading that Andrew’s ends of machine-like relentlessness somehow justify Fletcher’s means. The latter is a vicious puppet master, and his calculated erosion of the protagonist’s personhood comes off as more of a depressing Mephistophelean dynamic than an encouraging snapshot of goal accomplishment. It also makes perfect sense for him to relay distorted anecdotes about real-life figures or events, because mistruths and embellishments are kind of a narcissistic sociopath’s deal. It does, however, speak to the thoroughly perturbing ambiguity surrounding Fletcher’s intentions and how they will shape Andrew’s life in the grand scheme, and it’s this complexity that cements Whiplash as one of the great cinematic masterpieces of the 21st century.

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