There have been many films before Whiplash that examined the relationship between artistic success and personal sacrifice, but perhaps none as thrilling. The twisted abuse that is handed out in the name of artistic greatness is astounding, and horrifying. With top notch performances, editing, and cinematography, Whiplash is one of the best films of the year.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is drum student at Shaffer Conservatory, the most prestigious music school for jazz in the country. He is practicing at the start of the film, when the head teacher, Fletcher (JK Simmons), pops in on him. He decides to move him into his jazz band, the best one at the school. Andrew jumps at the chance, and works himself to the bone (literally) to become the best. Fletcher is a demanding teacher, even emotionally and physically abusive, determined that students will become the best. Fletcher almost succeeds in making Andrew as hostile as he is, but also a really great drummer. They go up against each other; they are both working so Andrew will be the best drummer, but at what price?
The best thing about this film, hands down, is the editing. It is extremely rhythmic, obviously playing into the drumming that Andrew does. Jazz can be really exciting anyway, but it is made more cinematically exciting by the way it is shot and edited together. The jazz numbers often feature extreme closeups and very fast pans to and from various members of the band, making the performances incredibly thrilling. They really put you on edge, and unless you are a really good musician, you generally can’t tell when Andrew is messing up, so that adds another layer of unease to the picture. You have to keep looking at Fletcher to see his reaction, and the camera often facilitates this by panning back over to him.
The whole film is incredibly tense. It’s a lot like Black Swan in that respect; in fact, keeping that movie in mind I was worried Andrew was going insane at several points. Fletcher doles out so much abuse to this kid it’s really hard to believe. The extreme actions of both of them, Fletcher trying to make Andrew a better drummer through psychotic manipulation and Andrew trying to be the best by sacrificing his well-being and even humanity, make the point of the film all that more clear. Whiplash is about what it takes to be a truly great artist, whether that necessitates a detachment from normal or healthy human behavior. The film wisely presents this as a conundrum that is unsolvable. If Fletcher wasn’t so terrifying would Andrew have pushed himself and become as great as he did? But on the other hand, he alienates his family and his girlfriend, and gets himself into bodily harm as well. There is no easy answer.
JK Simmons is getting most of the awards buzz for this, and I can totally see it. He embodies Fletcher perfectly; he is emotions are masked the entire time and you don’t know much about him except that you don’t trust him. He and Miles Teller play off each other incredibly well. Simmons with the flashier part is getting most of the acclaim, but Teller is equally as good, especially in the drumming sequences. Just watch that look of pain on his face.
Whiplash is an incredible movie; it’s tense thrilling all the way through, features great editing and cinematography, the actors work amazingly well together, and it says interesting things about the nature of art and sacrifice. Many films have ventured into this territory before, but this one has more a nonstop, breathless feel to it. I couldn’t look away from it.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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