For all its successes, what makes Whiplash so unique is that it’s actually two opposing films overlapping each other seamlessly. One on hand, writer/director Damien Chazelle chronicles the pursuit of greatness, exemplifying the pain and sacrifice a student endures as he and his teacher push further and further to cultivate true genius. But shift your perspective just a hair, and Whiplash warns of the dangers of obsession and the misery and loneliness inherent in a man’s need to feel bigger than those around him. When the credits come down on Whiplash‘s flawless climax, debates will rage over whether it served to validate its subject or to damn him. Chazelle paints a frank portrait of the heights you can achieve as well as the cost you’ll pay to do so, ultimately letting each member of the audience find their own answer to Whiplash‘s haunting question.
Was it worth it?
Whiplash follows Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a promising young drummer studying at an esteemed music conservatory, as he is pushed ever closer to breaking point by his mercilessly demanding conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). With a Darwinistic belief that real talent can only be achieved by overcoming his relentless punishment and degradation, Fletcher sets Neyman on a destructive path of obsession, self-doubt and sacrifice to achieve the greatness they both believe is so important.
The morality of Fletcher’s methods aside, Neyman’s desperation to meet his expectations is a glorious thing to watch. Dripping in sweat with hands bleeding onto his drums, Neyman looks like he’s been to hell and back, spending hours torturing himself trying to keep Fletcher’s rhythm. Though it’s clearly unhealthy both physically and emotionally, Chazelle gently hints at an underdog, tricking you into wanting Neyman to push harder and prove he’s the best. With little to no exposition polluting the script and a genuine need to see Fletcher taken down a peg, Whiplash straps you into the unsteady perspective of a confused and ego-driven protagonist, despite how quickly his likability expires. The absence of exposition is further appreciated given how organically Chazelle makes a lay audience understand the correct reception they should have to Neyman’s musical highs and lows.
If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that the rest of the cast fade into the shadows of Simmons and Teller. Though Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist both turn in genuine and likable performances as Neyman’s father and love-interest respectively (and provide possibly the only two sympathetic characters in the whole film), they exist purely in service to his character’s arc, or else to more candidly frame it. Really though, it’s unfair to view this lack of depth in the extended cast as a criticism, as it is thematically motivated, illustrating the fading relevance other people have on the increasingly narrow-minded Neyman. Fletcher even admits other musicians are given the spotlight only to further manipulate his student. From their first meeting in the film’s opening scene to the incredible moment they share at the conclusion, Whiplash never pretends to be anything other than a story about the relationship between a teacher and his student.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Teller so deftly navigating Neyman’s transition from the friendly, hard-working new kid to the condescending, entitled prick Fletcher turns him into. We’ve tasted Teller’s arsenal a few times round now, but Whiplash gives him the material needed to elevate his status to a higher echelon. Teller disarms you with his doe-eyed delivery in the film’s earlier scenes and then knocks you down with raw bursts of anger and frustration. While this transition is frantic and sometimes surprising, the impossible exhaustion and defeat Teller displays when trying to reach Fletcher’s standards instantly justify Neyman’s breakneck shift of personality.
Incredible as Teller is, Whiplash often feels like it’s J.K. Simmons’ show. Fletcher is a monster, completely unapologetic and cruel to anyone foolish enough to look up to him. Adamant the only way he is ever going to give birth to a musician of true genius is to beat the weakness and uncertainty out of them until only raw talent and unwavering determination remain. Simmons is at times downright terrifying, but he injects enough of a fatherly need to his motivations that you still want to see Neyman impress him, despite all the manipulation and the disgusting way he treats people. This could well be Simmons’ greatest role to date, with him all but assuring an Oscar nomination when he looks Neyman in the eyes and tells him there are “no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’ “.
It’s hard to talk about the more profound aspects of Whiplash without focusing on the darker interpretation of its subject, but the parallel sense of triumph the film delivers is every bit as important as the cautionary tale it spins. A telling facial expression on Neyman’s father defines the director’s view on the story, but beyond that he never suggests one way or another how it should be read. There is inherent tragedy to the path that Whiplash lays out, but when that pursuit is what truly matters to the characters and they go in willingly, they cease feeling like victims, and it goes back to how you yourself answer that aforementioned question. Most likely, you won’t be able to, and it’s here Whiplash‘s sombre message starts to sink in.
Whiplash is a film that achieves everything it sets out to do, delivering on every front and never losing focus of its core relationship and the themes it aims to explore. Its every instrument working in unison and giving us something profoundly more than the sum of all its parts ““ Whiplash is truly something special.
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