Damien Chazelle's Whiplash spotlights the inner workings of a studio jazz band, but it's the sort of tale that could have just as easily unfolded in any setting featuring an intense authority figure attempting to whip a group of impressionable underlings into shape. You've seen variations on this movie before - it plays like a musically-charged remake of the first half of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket - but perhaps never directed with quite as much kinetic energy, told with such morally complex ambiguity or acted with such ferocity. It's a real kick in the the teeth.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now) is a first-year student attending Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. He's faring well enough as a second-string jazz drummer, but like most jazz musicians at the conservatory, he aspires to be accepted into the high-caliber studio band conducted by the imposing Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man). Eventually, after listening to Andrew play on several occasions, Fletcher offers the kid a spot as an alternate. The aspiring young drummer is understandably thrilled, but quickly realizes that working under Fletcher is going to be far more challenging than he ever anticipated.
To say that Fletcher is a tough conductor is an understatement of the first order. He's a monster, and he thrives on cruelty and humilitation. He not only calls out musicians for making mistakes, he verbally undresses them in front of the entire band and whittles their sense of self-worth down to a splinter. Discriminatory slurs fly fast and furious in his rehearsal room, and he has no hesitation about firing the members of his band for the slightest of errors. He seems to reserve his most savage tendencies for Andrew, not only deriding his musical abilities but playing nasty psychological games with him.
J.K. Simmons is a valuable charactor actor who's been doing fine work in parts large and small for decades, but Fletcher is almost certainly the richest and most immediately memorable character he's ever played. It's technically a supporting performance, but Simmons practically consumes the film whole, looming large when he isn't onscreen and hypnotically terrifying when he is. There's no question that he's an extraordinarily cruel human being, but Simmons and Chazelle keep us guessing about what motivates his cruelty. Does he simply get off on cutting people down to size? Maybe, but there are indications that it's more complicated than that. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job,'" Fletcher insists, suggesting that his behavior is rooted in a genuine desire to separate the wheat from the chaff and inspire truly skilled musicians to achieve greatness. But do the ends justify the means? That's the big question Whiplash wrestles with, and Chazelle is even-handed enough to let the answer be informed by the viewer's individual worldview.
The relationship between Andrew and Fletcher is the most complicated and compelling one in the film, but Fletcher isn't the only important person in Andrew's life. Andrew's father Jim (a well-cast Paul Reiser, Aliens) is a struggling writer and a good-hearted guy whose life philosophy stands in direct opposition to Fletcher's. He believes that there are more important things in life than success, and that pushing yourself past the point of sanity for the sake of any career goal is unhealthy behavior. It's obvious that Jim will support anything Andrew wants to do, but he cares first and foremost about his son's happiness and mental well-being. He's the sort of guy inclined to say "good job" on a regular basis.
There's also a romantic relationship of sorts, as Andrew invites a cute movie theatre employee (Melissa Benoist, Glee) out on a date. It goes well enough, but the timing couldn't be worse: Andrew realizes almost immediately that he isn't going to have time for romance if he's going to be good enough to play in Fletcher's band. In Fletcher's mind (and in Andrew's, to ever-increasing degrees), greatness doesn't co-exist with an ordinary life. Greatness consumes an ordinary life. Greatness demands sacrifice - blood, sweat, tears, sanity.
Teller does a fine job of adjusting his performance from scene to scene, demonstrating varying levels of confidence, panic, warmth and dismissiveness depending on who he's speaking to and where his head is at. It's a much more reactive part than the explosive character Simmons plays, but Teller deserves to be acknowledged for the strong work he does. He demonstrated a good deal of potential in The Spectacular Now, but this is an even stronger piece of work. His drumming is pretty convincing, too, at least to a novice like yours truly.
This is only Chazelle's second feature (his first was the little-seen Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), and his movie is directed with the vigorous confidence of a prodigy who feels he has something to prove. It's astonishing to consider that Chazelle shot the movie in a mere 19 days - every technical element is so polished. One imagines Chazelle (who used his own experiences as a jazz drummer as the inspiration for the screenplay) put in an extraordinary amount of preparatory effort in order to achieve something this slick in that amount of time. Every one of the band sequences have an appropriately musical quality to their construction. Intense close-ups of angry faces, vibrating drumsticks and bleeding hands mesh perfectly - and uncomfortably - with the swinging rhythm. He's made a movie that thrills on a cinematic level while punching you in the gut on a narrative level. The film's bravura finale pushes both of those elements to an extreme, leaving the viewer simultaneously enthralled and drained. Whiplash, indeed.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 2014