Like any good movie title, Whiplash has multiple meanings. It’s the name of the Hank Levy song performed in the film; the condition a character suffers at one point due to a car crash; and a good description for the mental state endured by the students of abusive music instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Praising them one second and berating them the next, Fletcher’s “lessons” frequently feel like psychological torture.
The latest student to suffer Fletcher’s scrutiny is a promising young jazz drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller). Fletcher doesn’t see talent in Andrew as much as he sees drive – the desire to be the best. And that’s something he believes he can mold into musical perfection.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is mostly a consideration of the potential, value and cost of perfection. Is such a thing possible? And if so, is it worth pursuing? The movie spends much of the time measuring the cost of this pursuit – not only in terms of the emotional abuse from Fletcher, but also the sacrificing of things like family and friends, as well as the sheer physical demands. (I never realized drumming could result in so much blood.) Yet just when you think the movie has become a standard cautionary tale, it whips itself up into a frenzy of a climax in which all of the lines are thrillingly blurred. And you wonder, for a moment, if the suffering might not be worth it.
In terms of craft, Chazelle seems to have modeled his film after a musical aesthetic. You can sense this in the editing, especially, as when we get quick establishing shots of New York streets cut to the beat of the jazz on the soundtrack. Throughout, Chazelle uses insert shots as accent beats. He mostly does this when documenting the preparation that goes into a musical performance (moistening reeds, turning drum keys), but he also employs it in the more generic scenes, as when Andrew goes to the movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and we get a quick close-up of the popcorn. Like jazz, Whiplash is a movie constantly on the move, darting here and there, going places you might not expect.
Simmons has the sort of role for which the scenery has been pre-salted.
As Andrew, Teller delivers on the promise of The Spectacular Now, in which charm was a crucial part of both the performance and the character. He nearly drains himself of that here, replacing it with a sense of mirthless focus that becomes darker as the movie goes on. It’s a good sign that the actor, this early on, isn’t concerned with being likable.
This is, however, Simmons’ show, even if it’s Andrew’s story. Fletcher is the sort of role for which the scenery has been pre-salted; the actor’s challenge is to chew away without swallowing the movie whole. Simmons manages, not so much because he gives us “other sides” of Fletcher (there are only hints of such a thing), but because his domination of a scene never goes beyond what the moment requires. When he drops a comic insult on a student, Fletcher doesn’t seem satisfied with the humor of the line. He’s still fuming at the mistake the student made.
There’s also a diabolical subtlety to Fletcher’s tactics. Early on, he has a rare, quiet moment with Andrew in the hallway, in which he learns a few personal details about his new student. Moments later, screaming at Andrew in front of the rest of the jazz ensemble, he incorporates those intimacies into his insults. You can tell this hurts more than the slaps to the face Andrew receives when Fletcher is trying to demonstrate the difference between “rushing” and “dragging.”
You wouldn’t think anything would be worth this, yet in that climactic performance given at a jazz competition, Andrew and Fletcher have a showdown in which they transition from wary teammates to fierce enemies to creative compatriots, all over the course of a couple of songs. It’s a bravura sequence, even able to rise above Chazelle’s over-reliance on that musical aesthetic. (The mélange of inserts, tracking shots and swish pans is a bit much, even for jazz.) By its end, Whiplash makes you wonder if perfection might, in fact, be relative. From the judges’ perspective, the competition performance may have been a train wreck, but in that one brief moment Andrew and Fletcher believe they’ve attained it.