An attentive, quick-witted potboiler with the physical mechanics of a fine, boisterous thriller matched to the mind of brash, brutal critique of inspirational dramas, Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s full length version of his award-winning short film on the same subject, is a fierce and frenzied treat for the late 2014 movie season long lulled into a drowsy, seemingly endless sleep by milquetoast Oscarbait. That it isn’t quite as good as its now-rampant fanbase suggests is definitely noticeable, but that does little to distract from its pent-up, thoroughly-agitated charm and vicious, viscous frustration.
Chazelle’s heavily autobiographical study in tempo and temper finds its cipher in Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a highly (one might say psychotically) ambitious drummer recently admitted to the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. Once there, his clattering rhythms and cocksure commitment catch the eyes of the brazen Terence Fletcher, who sees Nieman’s Type-A commitment and raises him a metal chair with a concussion on the mind thrown right at his face. Fletcher demands perfection, and his swirling, slithering style hits you like a rush of blood to the head. And, as Nieman realizes after extended benders of non-stop drumming, to the hands too. Playing like a torn-to-pieces, burned-over version of inspirational music teacher cliches, here sharpened up like pieces of brittle, bloodied glass, Fletcher is a devilish angel (or angelic devil), a saving grace or a hellish beast ready to rescue or kill at a moment’s notice. If you have it in you, Whiplash has us believe, he can get you anywhere, but not before possibly ruining you and your soul along with it.
The most notable thing about Whiplash, especially in light of its heavy slathering of thickly-battered verbal abuse, is that it is not a visual wash by any means. In fact, it’s downright exciting and even astute from a visual perspective, matching its roiling, constant-flux of tempestuous drum fireworks and equally seductive and jagged horns with harsh, crisp editing that cuts with the improvisational spirit of free-form, jagged jazz to tell a story of raw, well-earned dexterous passion more than narrative. Cuts lash out and leave you no room to spare, cutting straight into you and peeling off the skin just as Fletcher does with his equally barbed quips. Whiplash is almost always at its best when sound and image are wedded in the drunken stupor of musical performance, and when his filmmaking recreates the look and feel of the subject matter the film undeniably holds dear.
The other “big” thing about the film is the liveliness of its central performances, also fitting for a work about performance. For a piece that is essentially a two-man battleground, Whiplash has two heavily armed competitors, although one carries bigger guns than the other. Miles Teller gives a performance of quiet intensity and flustered ambition, remaining likable whilst never losing the dark heart that could exist underneath. JK Simmons meanwhile is there precisely to tease this dark heart out, and he does it with gusto. It’s a showy, even mechanical performance, but the way he chews on the words less like he wants to abuse his performers than like he needs to, fits perfectly for drawing out the internal tension and monomaniacal showmanship of a man who has long ago subsumed the joys of music into the curse of perfection. It is less that he enjoys tormenting his students than that he feels an inescapable urge to, and Simmons relishes his character’s internal spaces as much as his external fire.
If Chazelle’s visual style is almost fully formed, his storytelling skills still reveal growing pains. His dialogue is on the stagey side, and if not for the lively performances and the tight, maddening direction, the words might grow weary and tiresome over the film’s length. When things get quiet (which isn’t too often), Chazelle struggles to stay above water, refusing to let his strong visual craftsmanship do the talking. He underconfidently oversells the dialogue, especially in a late-film scene between Fletcher and Nieman in a jazz club. Elsewhere, the two semi-subplots showcasing Andrew’s low-key attempts at a personal life by way of his family, in one, and a girlfriend (the film’s only meaningful female character, at that) in the other, are treated so standoffishly that the side-characters never attain a life of their own. This breathless rush forward without ever looking sideways is perhaps fitting for a study about single-minded men who do not know the pleasure of a relaxed life filled with other passions or human emotion. However, even then, stripping the film of these subplots altogether would have showcased Nieman’s flailing mind with even more cruel efficiency.
In the end, Whiplash is a strong, rampaging little film that trucks along on a nicely anxious energy and always threatens fire. It never really alights, admittedly, for it is mostly just content to exist on a superficial level of thrills and chills. The character drama works better as thriller than psychology, never really drawing us into the minds of the characters because the film is far more interested in their external clash. It’s also a little bit confused about its closing moments, implying none-too-doubtingly that Nieman’s near-death experiences were all worthwhile in the name of artistic achievement. The film doesn’t come quiet out and say this, but the final image runs the risk of avoiding the thornier questions about Fletcher’s character.
It would seem that Whiplash provides a knife in the ribs to any inspirational drama positing that would posit that humans are easily capable of greatness. Instead Chazelle readily states that greatness may ask for and even demand the loss of a soul, and even a life, in the process. If the film critiques those who seek greatness in spite of the risk with a fiery temper, it also rewards those who come out the other side in the end. Considering the semi-dark places Whiplash goes, it might have been better for it to go grubbier and push to deeper, darker caverns in the name of true depth, rather than to come out on the other side a bit happier than need-be. Still, if the film doesn’t really ever achieve true depth, its propulsive, temperamental filmmaking does a heightened, superb job of at least approximating it.