Whiplash – verb: to jerk or jolt (someone or something) suddenly, typically so as to cause injury. Also a fitting title for a film that explores the road to greatness. Damien Chazelle’s latest effort has received most praise for the stunning performances of its leads, Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons. Whilst it’s true that both men deliver some of their finest work, the Oscar-buzz has led many to believe that Whiplash is a vehicle to push forward their respective careers. As it turns out, this is not a reflection of the final product.
To say so would be dismissive of Chazelle’s thought-provoking script and confident direction, which raise as many questions as answers. Genius, are we born with it? Is it brought into being by factors outside of our control? Or is it a decision? Something that comes with time, through the trials we face and obstacles we overcome. At its heart, this is the central question with which Whiplash is concerned. But don’t expect a simple answer.
Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young and ambitious jazz drummer currently studying at Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the US. When asked at a family dinner about his current friendships, Andrew answers “I never saw the point in them.” His only concern is to become one of the greats, like Buddy Rich or Jo Jones. Anything else is expendable.
This obsessive behaviour causes Andrew to enter into a dangerous relationship with Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), an infamous conductor known for his extreme teaching methods. Neiman joins the school band as the new drum alternate, and quickly becomes the object of Fletcher’s physical and emotional abuse. As competitions draw near, Fletcher’s practice sessions become increasingly intense, and Neiman has to dig ever deeper to keep on going. It’s poignant, moving and, at times, almost unbearable, but never boring.
Initially marketed as a drama, Whiplash often verges upon a psychological thriller. Neiman’s journey is a frightening example of what happens to human willpower when stretched beyond its limits. The effects are presented with startling clarity. The good, the bad, and the ugly. As Fletcher pushes for perfection, Neiman’s tunnel vision becomes even more restricted. Professional and personal lives cease to coexist, and the few pleasures Andrew had once allowed himself seem impossible to maintain.
Andrew’s breakup with loving girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is particularly troubling. During this, he dispassionately informs her that she is merely a distraction. Even more frightening is the rationale behind this. In order to be great, Neiman must practice. Practice takes time, time which could be spent with Nicole. Nicole will become angry, eventually to the point of resentment. Resentment leads to hate, and hate will end their relationship.
So why bother? The entire spectrum of human emotion is condensed into a single, mathematical equation. Nowhere else is Neiman’s psychological trauma more evident, or more unnerving. As his personal life self-destructs in front of him, Neiman (like us) must consider how far he’s willing to go to achieve greatness.
It’s thanks to Chazelle’s script that the transformation is so clearly signposted, and this raises the project beyond the meagre title of an ‘actor film’. The direction too is astounding. Pain and endurance are two major themes throughout the film, and thanks to Chazelle’s interesting and dynamic shooting style, we share in every second.
After one particularly gruelling practice session, Neiman is left drenched in sweat with bloody hands. To ease the pain, he dunks them into a jar of iced water. The camera angle shifts, and we find ourselves submerged at the bottom of the jar, looking up. As this happens, the screen slowly fills with ever-growing veins of red. Admittedly it doesn’t match the technical wizardry of Birdman, but sometimes the simplest tricks can prove to be the most effective.
But even with a great script by a talented director, it is the actors that shine most brightly. Recent press has gone overboard in singing their praises, to the neglect of the film’s many other outstanding qualities. That being said, there can be little doubt that Teller and Simmons give Whiplash its overwhelming burst of life.
Teller has the added complication of playing a musician, but multitasks instrumentals and acting so well that one never overtakes the other. At just 27 years old, he undoubtedly has an exciting career ahead of him. Yet even this can’t match-up to the raging behemoth that is J. K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher.
Both leads put in career-best performances, but that means considerably more for Simmons, given that he has spent 29 years working in the industry. He brings strength, unpredictability, and psychological realism to a role that could have been overlooked in the hands of a lesser actor. His Golden Globe win and Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor are truly well-deserved.
Emerging from the barrage of recent biopics, audiences are growing concerned with the factual nature of films. On this basis, Whiplash seemed destined to be overlooked. But over the course of the film, what becomes increasingly clear is that just because something isn’t real, doesn’t mean that it’s not true.
Andrew Neiman and Terence Fletcher never existed, but people like them do. Parts of them exist in you and I. In our drive to get things done, the heartache of failure, even the joy of success. Damien Chazelle isn’t here to pass judgement, neither is he here to give us all the answers; he’s here to make us think, to explore greatness, and ask how much we really want it. To this end, Whiplash is more than just a success, it’s a triumph of modern filmmaking.