Whiplash Whips Into the Oscar Race
Review by Daniel Rester
Whiplash, the sophomore feature film from writer-director Damien Chazelle, is an electrifying film. This thing has a pulse to it. It moves in energetic ways unlike many recent films. It’s a movie about jazz musicians, which might turn off some in their initial thoughts. But don’t let it. You don’t have to be a jazz lover to respect this film.
Chazelle’s film revolves around Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old drummer who goes to (the fictional) Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. He likes going to the movies with his dad, Jim (Paul Reiser), and he even has some romantic interest in a movie theater employee named Nicole (Melissa Benoist). But his biggest focus goes towards jazz drumming, with his hero being Buddy Rich.
One day Andrew is offered to be in a band under the guidance of music conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who has immense respect for Charlie Parker (some say a story about Parker in the film was altered a bit for effectiveness, but either way it works to the story’s advantage). While the opportunity seems great at first, Andrew soon realizes that Fletcher is a verbally and physically abusive perfectionist who will stop at nothing in pushing his musicians. Andrew must then prove himself to Fletcher and himself, as the young man wants to be “one of the greats.”
At first glance, Whiplash seems like it could just be another crowd-pleasing underdog story full of clichés. It is a crowd-pleasing underdog story, actually, but one that is original, tough, and intelligent. Chazelle is interested in actual ideas and raw emotion here rather than just obvious audience-feeding tricks with easy ways out.
The film puts you on the edge of your seat with its sustained intensity, but it also makes you think about how far people should go in achieving something. Is the end goal worth being abused over? Is it worth shutting out other aspects of your life? Does constant practice make you great, or do you have to be born with it? Chazelle asks us these questions but doesn’t give clear answers on purpose, making the audience dwell on these ideas of human determination.
Whiplash gets a lot of its greatness out of the two lead performances. Both Teller and Simmons have never been better. Teller does an incredible job with his character’s nuanced expressions, and his drumming skills are jaw-dropping. Simmons is on fire as Fletcher, presenting stinging humor and a mentor push similar to that of Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket (1987). Not every one of the actions Chazelle presents between the two are completely believable (one scene in particular), but the actors make the relationship real and fill the air with palpable intensity.
The rest of the cast is strong as well, though only Reiser and Benoist get some moments to shine. It’s intriguing to see how Andrew both hurts and surprises Jim and Nicole, and Reiser and Benoist present these feelings well. I do wish Chazelle developed these two relationships a bit more, but maybe that would have killed some of the film’s momentum.
All of the technical aspects of Whiplash are first-rate, with the sound and music mixing and editing coming across expertly. The true standout aspect, though, is the Oscar-worthy film editing by Tom Cross. Cross helps Chazelle give Whiplash a rhythm and form that is beautiful and gripping. Cross’ cutting smoothly orchestrates between close-ups, wide shots, and soft pushes, showing off the richness of Sharone Meir’s cinematography without ever becoming distracting. Not every film lets us see sweat dripping off of ears in slow motion or blood quickly smacking against a drum kit. Whiplash lets such effective shots come through without taking away from the story.
Chazelle has made one of the more memorable music-based films in recent years. The story is apparently partially based on Chazelle’s real experiences as a drummer in high school, and it is also an adaptation of his 2013 short film of the same name. Whiplash easily stands on its own, though, showing no signs of being a stretched idea. It’s one of the best films of 2014, though a bit shy of being perfect due to a few minor issues.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A).
MPAA Rating: R (for strong language including some sexual references).
Runtime: 1 hour and 46 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: October 10th, 2014 (limited).