Whiplash (2014)

Posted by Joel Copling on October 29, 2014

There is no getting around the occasional, oft-used phrase, and "Whiplash" calls for it: This film is note-perfect. The trailers and advertisements, irrelevant in the long run to anything but marketing, have sold it short as a sort of "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" for the Juilliard set, but while it comes very close to equaling that by-now-underappreciated gem's power, the film ultimately plays in much more complex areas than simply a "...from Hell"-type thriller (You know the one: It usually pits a do-gooder protagonist against someone in a position of authority or subordination to them who misuses for the benefit of a frightening situation). This is one of the year's very, very best films.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a well-to-do, 19-year-old kid looking to be one of the great drummers (alongside Buddy Rich, to whose records he listens with an identifiable glee. He can recognize a song playing in the local restaurant by the beat of its drums. He's currently doing quite well in the role of drummer for a course in New York City's Shaffer Conservatory. He clearly has a promising future, and his idea of one is to be remembered at the dinner tables of who would be otherwise unimpressed dinner guests; this may also explain the disdain for his brother's budding college sports career, which he considers fairly insubstantial compared to being core drummer in the most renowned school band in the world.

The band in question belongs to Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who quickly seems to notice potential in Andrew and takes him under his wing, first as an alternate and eventually as a more permanent member. Fletcher is some kinda teacher. He commands the room more effectively and efficiently than a drill instructor, shouts about as much one, and, on occasion, physically abuses those who don't play to his tempo (the figurative and literal kinds). He's heartless and cruel, warming up to Andrew and learning a bit about his childhood before using it against him in a cruel-enough way to bring Andrew to tears ("What, are you one of those single-tear people," he mocks before laying into the kid with his colorful brand of slurs and obscenities).

The introduction of Fletcher into Andrew's life isn't for the best. His father (Paul Reiser), whom his wife left shortly after Andrew's birth, knows there is something amiss in this fledgling student/teacher relationship. Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the girl whom Andrew Meets-Cute during his trips to the movie theater, suffers a break-up before the relationship really lifts off (Benoist is particularly effective in a potentially throwaway role during the break-up scene, laying out everything Andrew is saying and only receiving confirmation). Andrew also develops self-destructive tendencies (The alarming actions he takes following a car crash are the best evidence for this) that are downright upsetting.

Imperfections leak through the diamond-like surface of "Whiplash," arriving in the form of an extra montage or two and the general familiarity of the premise. In all other ways, this is a stunning exploration of the pursuit of perfection and talent, humanizing both of its subjects in such complexly revealing ways. Teller is terrifically effective as Andrew, whose journey is the film's heart and whose line between talent and insanity is constantly unclear. It is Simmons, though, who is the film's real weapon--terrifying in a performance of almost unreal power and, in the film's most tender scene, human frailty. By the time a final solo act has arrived, "Whiplash" has settled itself in the forefront of its viewers' minds as a powerful testament to that unclear line.

Film Information

Miles Teller (Andrew), J.K. Simmons (Fletcher), Paul Reiser (Jim), Melissa Benoist (Nicole), Austin Stowell (Ryan), Nate Lang (Tanner).

Directed and written by Damien Chazelle.

Rated R (language including sexual references).

106 minutes.

Released in select cities on October 10, 2014.