[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Whiplash opens today in limited release.]
We know “greatness” demands sacrifice. It’s blood, sweat, and tears, and if you’re not willing to dish out all three constantly and consistently, then hey, you’re not worthy of your dream. Physical greatness–the greatness of athletes, for example–is easily quantifiable. But when that physicality is blended with musical expression, it becomes something more vague, complex, and fascinating. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash provides an intense and disturbing exploration of the primal drive to dominate and achieve greatness but at a horrific cost. Anchored by extraordinary performances from lead actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, Chazelle’s film never loses its brooding, unnerving energy even as it stumbles trying to find a fitting crescendo.
Andrew (Teller) is a freshman drum major at the prestigious Schaffer Conservatory of Music. He’s enamored with drumming legends like Charlie Parker, wants to be the best, and thinks he has a shot when he’s recruited into the school’s highly competitive jazz band, The Studio, led by the ruthless, abusive Terence Fletcher (Simmons). The impressionable student buys into the notion that only through Fletcher’s disturbing methods of breaking down students’ psyches can he achieve the same greatness as his idols. But as he moves towards greatness, Andrew’s emotional stability begins to shatter, and there may not be much left of him other than his blood on the skins.
Plenty of other films have explored the “cost of greatness”, but Chazelle hits into something fresh by putting it through the prism of percussion. Music is a primal form of artistic expression. We can create it through our bodies either by singing or by hitting. That’s not to diminish the effort and artistry of instruments, but most people can hit something. The drums are a violent instrument, so unlike a film such as Black Swan, which plays into the dichotomy of physical limits under the guise of grace, Whiplash is unrelentingly aggressive. Even in the moments where Fletcher isn’t on screen, his dark aura permeates the screen. We can feel it creeping in, and the drum sequences let it explode. Chazelle has us feel the low hum of potential energy before exploding it in a kinetic fury of Andrew’s blood and sweat showering his drum kit.
Chazelle adapted Whiplash from his award-winning short film of the same name, and with this feature he has quickly established himself as a director to watch. Whiplash is a work of bravura filmmaking as Chazelle furiously rushes around the music sequences, moving in time with the jazz. It’s a style of music that rides on an air of unpredictability yet it requires pristine technique, and Chazelle’s picture follows suit. Even when the story begins to falter, Chazelle keeps us hooked as he and cinematographer Sharone Meir shine harsh amber light on Andrew’s performances and make sure to almost always cloak Fletcher in partial darkness. The story may involve drums, jazz, and a music conservatory, but it carries all the dread of a finely crafted horror story.
But even with Chazelle’s tremendous direction, Whiplash wouldn’t be half as strong without Teller and Simmons. Like he did in The Spectacular Now, Teller excels at playing believable, broken teenagers; he finds the earnest, fragile center of his characters. But where in The Spectacular Now there was something tender, in Whiplash, the center is fearsome and dangerously close to madness. Every ounce of the character’s corruption, anger, vanity, and wrath feels natural, which is part of why the movie is so terrifying. The other part is Simmons, who absolutely dominates every frame of the picture. Fletcher is absolutely monstrous, but rather than chew the scenery, Simmons goes for the brutal punch rather than the flourishes. Even his mind-games lack pretensions, and we can see him sharpen every psychological knife and then mercilessly plunge it into his hapless students. The chemistry between Teller and Simmons is perfectly played as their sadomasochistic relationship escalates to where we see violence as not only inevitable, but almost a welcome release from the extreme psychological tension.
Ironically, that violent release only comes through banging the drums, which then creates a feedback loop to where catharsis becomes punishment. Any and all joy falls away, and we begin to have trouble grasping Andrew’s goals. Yes, he wants to achieve the same level of immortality as his idols, but where does musical expression fit into that? By the time the film starts to tap into that expression, it’s already started losing its way as it maneuvers through shortcuts and unnecessary subplots. Chazelle is trying to create a culmination of his themes, but the expression feels cacophonous instead of rousing.
There are plenty of interesting ideas banging around in Whiplash, but the story struggles to get them on tempo. However, Chazelle never loses the emotional drive of the picture, and the sense of dread permeates every scene. Even when the picture allows for a joke (usually Fletcher insulting one of his students), it’s further pushing us down into Andrew’s grotesque journey towards greatness. Every pause is prelude to a symbol crash, and every fill is a bridge to the next violent outburst. If music is an expression of the soul, Whiplash is the sound a twisted soul makes.