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Review by Timothy Lawrence
“I’d rather die drunk and broken at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was,” says Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), the protagonist of Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature film Whiplash. Andrew wants to be a great drummer – like his hero, Charlie Parker – and in Whiplash, the pursuit of great art has something inherently self-destructive about it. In his single-minded quest for greatness, Andrew suffers and suffers and suffers. Is it worth it?
That’s the question Whiplash asks in scene after scene after scene. Chazelle’s direction is confident and visceral, selling the relentless, harrowing intensity of Andrew’s training. The editing is immersive, frequently cutting a series of close-ups (beads of sweat streaming down Andrew’s face, the bandages covering the blisters on his hands, the red stain of blood on the drums) to the beat of the music. Whiplash is, above all, a supremely visceral and draining experience - as emotionally exhausting, in its own way, as last year's Gravity.
As Andrew, Miles Teller is excellent and charismatic, striking the perfect balance between arrogance and winsomeness to create a character who is always sympathetic but never perfect. Even as Andrew’s ascetic devotion to his craft bleeds over into the realms of obsession, from zeal to idolatry, he remains an everyman, a simple and likable character with a clear goal that he really, really wants to achieve. "I want to be one of the greats," he says, simply, and it is clear from his actions that he means it. Paul Reiser is a tremendously likable presence as Andrew’s kindly, concerned father, whose failure to achieve his own dreams hangs over Andrew like an ominous shadow. The rest of the supporting cast is effective, from Melissa Benoist as Andrew’s girlfriend to Austin Stowell as a jazz band rival.
The film’s ace in the hole, though, is J.K. Simmons’ tremendous performance as Terence Fletcher, the ferocious band director who pushes Andrew to achieve his full potential. Fletcher, who screams at his students with all the intensity of a military drill instructor, could have been nothing more than a caricature, but in Simmons’ capable hands, becomes a living, breathing human being, adhering to a philosophy that a real person could conceivably espouse. “I push people beyond what’s expected of them,” he explains. “I believe that’s an absolute necessity.” Simmons invests Fletcher with conviction: whatever we might think of his methods, he's so sincere in his beliefs that we can’t easily write him off as a villain. Even when he hurls a chair at Andrew’s head, there’s a frightening, compelling logic to his actions. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” he intones solemnly. Fletcher’s actions do not stem from a hatred of his students – far from it. He is motivated by a desire to see them succeed and flourish, to separate the wheat from the chaff – to find the next Charlie Parker, as it were.
On multiple occasions, the film invokes the legend of Charlie Parker, who, Fletcher contends, was inspired to achieve greatness because Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head. The parallels are obvious: Fletcher believes that he must push his students to drive them to greatness. But how hard is too hard? Andrew seems to buy into Fletcher’s philosophy, diving headfirst into the rigors of his grueling training routine. He is willing to suffer for his goal. However, his father objects. “I would never let him put my son through hell,” he says firmly. The relationship between Andrew and Fletcher is the film’s core, and it hardly conforms to the model of the typical sports movie’s teacher/student relationship – a curmudgeonly but benevolent coach paired with a student (often lazy) who must prove himself. Nor is it a mere portrait of an abusive teacher who preys upon an unsuspecting student. The matter is complicated immensely by the fact that, on some level, Andrew is willing to be abused. In fact, one could argue that the dynamic in Whiplash simply takes the typical sports movie model as far as it can go – casting Fletcher as the benevolent coach who just happens to have some unorthodox methods. When Andrew briefly escapes from Fletcher’s orbit, he is the one who chooses to return. Why?
For all the suffering Andrew endures, Chazelle doesn't neglect the genuine exhilaration experienced in the practice of one's craft. As a visceral experience, Whiplash is draining, yes, even exhausting - but it is also thrilling, electrifying, tremendous. By the end of the film, Andrew is undoubtedly a great drummer, an expert practitioner of his talent, and Chazelle is insistent that there is value in this: that, though it's never stated in so many words, Andrew is made to drum.
So in the end, is it worth it? Every time the pursuit of greatness takes another toll on Andrew’s life – when he endures hours of verbal and emotional abuse from Fletcher, when he practices so hard that his drums are spattered with blood, when he breaks up with his girlfriend – the film is asking us, again to consider the cost. Is it worth it? To its credit, Whiplash never answers the question definitively. It merely presents the dilemma, neither denouncing nor glorifying Andrew’s path. By the time the film reaches its heart-pounding conclusion, Andrew is caught in tension between two mentor figures – his benign, underachieving father, and his vicious, demanding teacher. Andrew chooses which one to follow. Does he make the right choice? The film leaves that up to us to decide.
- Release DateOctober 10, 2014