Whiplash

UK Release Date 16th January 2015
Director Damien Chazelle
Starring J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller
Runtime 107 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 24th January 2015

Whiplash is not a movie that is concerned with your comfort. It has no time for a gentle introduction, or in fact an introduction of any sort and can barely even find time to spit the title onto the screen before it grabs you by the throat and roars off, trailing you in its wake.

And who would have thought that sophomore writer / director Damien Chazelle would come up with such a towering movie? Best known previously for the screenplay for The Last Exorcism Part II (I’m not making this up), he’s not the first person you would pick out for a jazz drama. As it turns out though, he is absolutely the right person to be making that movie.

Miles Teller is Andrew, a newbie jazz drum hopeful at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music. He enjoys jazz music and spends his spare time lusting over a concession stand employee at his local cinema whilst there watching old movies with his father (Paul Reiser). Practicing one day at school, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s brutal, mercurial instructor appears in the doorway and at first berates Andrew for stopping drumming, before berating him for starting again. It’s a telling beginning to the relationship. After starting up drumming for a third time, Andrew looks up to see that Fletcher has vanished, crestfallen at what may be his one opportunity to make an impression, he looks away, only for Fletcher to re-appear in the doorway - to pointedly collect his jacket and disappear again. Brutality and obsession are the keys to Fletcher’s teaching style. Later he instructs Andrew to be at practice at 6am, Andrew wakes at 6.03, only to eventually discover that practice begins at 9am. He sits at the drums for three hours, awaiting his turn…

Playing second seat in the Conservatory’s band, Andrew sits in isolation whilst the other musicians tune their instruments. The first choice drummer appears and Andrew is back to turning pages for him. It isn’t long before Fletcher picks Andrew out though and he is thrust into the first seat and into Fletcher’s horrific glare. As we learn very quickly, this is a terrifying place to be.

As Fletcher, J.K. Simmons finally has a role to match his considerable acting ability - it's a wonderfully horrible creation. Bursting out of a plain black t-shirt and with every vein in his skeletal head speaking volumes for him, he is forever on the verge of bursting. But it’s not always bursting into attacking an under performing musician (by no means does he go easy on the remainder of the band) - every emotion seems to be blistering right at the surface of that magnificent cranium. When a young musician and former pupil of his dies, he hides none of the emotions from his students, nobody is in any doubt just how much all of this means to him. And the tension Simmons brings to the movie is palpable. Every ‘One, two, three, four….’ followed by the agonised look and the fist held up to signify the band to stop is another crack in your bludgeoned mind. And it ratchets up for every additional fist - you'll quickly find yourself flinching at the first 'one..' Simmons' Fletcher is at once repulsive, charismatic, magnetic, monstrous and sympathetic. The Academy has rightly nominated Simmons for an Oscar, it would be a travesty if it goes anywhere else.

And next to Simmons is Teller, interesting in The Spectacular Now, wasted in Divergent and boy, superb in this one. Chazelle isn’t interested in introductions so we get very little back story for Andrew, just what we see with his father, what Fletcher wrenches out of him about his mother and one brief scene at the dining table with various disinterested relatives (best put down for some time - Travis: ’I got a reply for you, Andrew. You think Carleton football's a joke? Come play with us.’ Andrew: ‘Four words you will never hear from the NFL.’). The rest we’re forced to fill in as we watch Teller put his character through the emotional and physical wringer. It is horrifically fascinating to watch as Fletcher gradually demolishes Andrew, in order to rebuild his raw talent into the perfect drummer he knows he can be. Blood, sweat and tears flow as Andrew forces himself to drum well beyond his physical and mental capacity. He has only one goal - to be the best and if that means casting aside his doting girlfriend, well, so long toots, you’re cut. Teller plays this perfectly, we never doubt his obsession for a second, even as we grapple with understanding it, nor for that matter, that he can actually play the drums like a genius.

Which brings us to Chazelle. Who, for reasons only the Academy can explain (or more likely not) has not been nominated alongside his picture for an award. Which is genuinely surprising because no other movie recently has made me think so much about the direction. Chazelle is clearly a man who knows his jazz but also a man who knows how to present his version of it to people who know not a thing about the music (in this instance, me). His camera knows exactly when to be right up in his characters’ faces and when to be buzzing around his band. Everything is planned out to absolute precision, as if a ghostly Fletcher were sat over his shoulder through the entire process. Whiplash is an absolute masterclass of lean, aggressive, intense cinema. No lines are wasted here, no shot it there to make up the numbers and we feel that intensely through the screen.

Chazelle has taken a Marmite subject and made a wonderfully impressive movie out of it. It matters not if you have feelings either way about jazz, this is a movie that only uses jazz to hang a masterful character study of two people obsessed by perfection and recognition. Questions swirl as the drumsticks batter your psyche because the writer / director seems to know exactly how much should be explained and how much should be left for you to figure out. Fletcher’s past will be as murky as you stitch it together, likewise his young charge’s future. You will spend days adding the bits up and trying to understand them and you’ll come close, so close. But you’re not going to get there and you shouldn’t, unless maybe you just removed your bleeding hand from a bucket of ice and picked the sticks back up again.

Whiplash is a stunning piece of work and stunned is exactly how you’ll exit the screening. Your ears will ring, sweat will be standing on your forehead and your battered mind will be doing loops. No other movie climax has had me unconsciously holding my breath for so long and I’m pretty sure the entire auditorium exhaled at exactly the same time, a collective recognition that what we’d all just experienced was something unique. And it’s not the climax you’re expecting either, this is a far better movie than to feed you something obvious. From the top now, one, two, three, four….

Check out the trailer here.

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