Compelling Whiplash Easily Lives Up to Its Name
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2014 18 Nov
DVD Release Date: February 24, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 10, 2014 limited; expanding through November 2014
Rating: R (for strong language including some sexual references)
Run Time: 107 min
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
What does it take to make great art, or to become a truly great artist? How far must someone be pushed? Is there even a limit, and does leaving an immortal legacy justify whatever methods (or costs) it takes to achieve it? In one sense the answer is simple: morally speaking there are limits to any worthy endeavor, and lines should be drawn because people are more important than art. Yet while we can all agree that the ends don't justify the means, a challenging question remains: do the ends still require them?
Whiplash, the breakout film (and winner) of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, wrestles with this question in an intense nail-biting character study so energized that – despite being set in the refined halls of an elite music conservatory – the film easily lives up to its name. This is one of the most compelling movie-going experiences of the year, in part because of an ending that’s inspired as much controversy as it has applause, and often from the same viewers (including yours truly).
Andrew (Miles Teller, Divergent) is a young drummer prodigy whose talent has brought him to a prestigious music academy. While it’s no surprise that the environment is competitive and grueling, the school's most respected instructor Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, the J. Jonah Jameson of the original Spider-Man trilogy) is downright sadistic. He doesn’t merely yell at students; he berates, humiliates, and psychologically manipulates them. Fletcher plays mind games, fueled by profanity-laced denigration, pitting students against each other and their own sense of self-worth, often demanding (and occasionally inflicting) a bruising physical toll. Blood is literally left on the snare skin. It’s as disturbing to watch as it is absorbing.
Being impressionable and driven is a lethal combination, which makes someone like Andrew – who’s reticent and trusting – red meat for a predator like Fletcher, a mentor who takes as much validation from humiliating the weak out of a career path as he does in pushing the resilient who refuse to be deterred. This perverse duality is also what gives Fletcher dimension. He’s not being cruel simply to satiate some power fetish; Fletcher is driven by a love for art, and finding great artists.
His conviction is that a great artist can only emerge from a reckoning fire, and to validate his view he recounts historical examples of tortured artists whose work still endures. If he doesn’t push his students then he won’t discover those artists, and Fletcher will have been responsible for robbing the world of their contribution. Yes, this leads to a completely warped and abusive method of teaching, but there’s much more going on here than mere sadism alone. And when it comes to the clichéd trope of the teacher harboring a soft heart under the tough exterior, Whiplash plays to that expectation only to subvert it.
Fletcher is the kind of character that actors gravitate toward and seek out, and so it’s no surprise that Simmons also played the role in writer/director Damine Chazelle's original short film of the same name, when the only payment was the thrill for having done it. Roles like this are rare gifts, and Simmons relishes every moment with uncompromised ferocity. As Andrew, Miles Teller expands the range that has established him as a rising star. Having built his young career on characters that boast charm and swagger (such as 2013’s stellar The Spectacular Now), Teller’s Andrew begins as decidedly meek, unsure of himself, yet sweet and sensitive, to only self-destruct under the pressure of his own blind ruthlessness. He becomes both victim and victimizer, and it’s a powerhouse performance that matches Simmons beat for beat.
Stories that are physically confined to a few interior locations (like this one is) can easily translate to the stage but not nearly so well to the screen. The cinematic possibilities are limited, and the net effect can feel static and inert. To overcome those constraints requires an assured directorial vision and creative command of the craft, which is exactly what newcomer Chazelle exhibits with confidence and flair. Driven by the uptempo jazz numbers that serve as the conservatory’s focus, Chazelle imbues the camera work and editorial style with rhythms that are as smooth and effortless as they are kinetic.
Aesthetically, the film can feel as if assembled by improvisational free-form, yet the shots are cut with such tight precision that it’s clear Chazelle is not simply riffing. There is a pulse and a passion to exploring these characters, this world, and the marriage of form and content grabs us by the lapels with a virtuosity equal to what the title promises. Chazelle doesn't just show us Andrew being put through the wringer; we’re taken through the wringer with him. One suspects Chazelle pushed himself as hard as Fletcher pushes his students.
Which brings us to the film's thrilling climax (which I won’t spoil). It's a rousing one, to be sure (my heart was racing), but when the credits roll we’re left wondering what the film’s message actually is. Chazelle clearly condemns Fletcher's tactics all along the way, but does he also concede Fletcher's point? Can Fletcher be both wrong (morally) and right (practically) at the same time? The fact that Chazelle leaves us to debate that question rather than resolving it shows us that Whiplash, even in its modest form, is a true work of art in its own right.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drug/Alcohol Content: Some social drinking in bars and clubs, but negligible.
- Language/Profanity: The F-word is spoken regularly throughout as are many other profanities, with occasional usage of vulgar sexual terms, homosexual slurs, and the Lord’s name in vain. Language is the primary reason for the R rating, particularly as much of it used by a teacher toward students in an abusive manner.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Some mild embracing and kissing; a dating relationship is a subplot, but depicted with an innocent awkwardness.
- Violence/Other: Some moments of fighting. Some injuries, with blood, as a result of students being overworked and driven too hard. Bullying between students. A teacher slaps a student on multiple occasions for not performing correctly. A violent car crash, with bloody injuries shown.
Publication date: November 18, 2014