★★★★ / ★★★★
Some movies leave you quiet when it ends because something deep inside you knows that you had seen something great. “Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is that kind of film. Its weapon: jazz music and inimitable performances by Miles Teller, who plays a first-year student at a music school known for being the best in the country, and J.K. Simmons, an instructor who recruits the freshman to be in his orchestra. Andrew and Fletcher, respectively, share a relationship to be remembered.
It is to be remembered because all of us are likely to have had a teacher who was tough, punctilious, a perfectionist. The material works as an exaggeration of such an idea. Imagine a glass of water with plastic tightly wrapped around its rim. With each passing scene, weight, never constant, is placed on top of that flimsy covering. There is genuine tension because we never know when the plastic can no longer support the pressure.
The verbal and psychological abuse that Andrew goes through is fascinating to watch unfold. I think it is meant to make us wonder how far we are willing to go, how much we are willing to sacrifice to become and to be considered great at what we do. But it is not just about willingness. Sometimes it is about having a tough skin. If one does not have it, better get one real quick because it is either sink or swim out there. Andrew’s goal is to become a great musician, to be remembered long after he is gone. He must seize and fight for what he wants, what he believes he is destined for.
There is a partnership between jazz music and the editing. A synergy is reached between them and what results is a series of images, many of them close-ups of the instruments and the highly physical act of drumming, coming across as music. There is a natural flow between the cuts, versatile in terms of whether the tempo is high or low, whether the energy is vibrant or soft. I am not a jazz aficionado but I felt like I knew more about the genre by the end or at least can appreciate it a little more because the picture actively welcomes the audience into the genre rather than remaining insular, too good for the common masses to be understood or appreciated.
Humorous and dramatic moments have a natural ebb and flow, too. This is where Simmons’ character is key and must be played exactly right. The performer embodies the character with unpredictable verve. In one scene, he is throwing verbal daggers left and right. In another, a more quiet menace is communicated. Notice his posture change in subtle ways when he is unimpressed. Pauses between the lines carry additional weight. What is he thinking when a musician is playing? How is he going to respond by the end of the piece? Will he even allow the piece to be played in its entirety? Not once did I feel like I knew him as a person, more like a figure to be respected, feared, or both.
“Whiplash” is a movie that should be remembered decades from now but I am somewhat doubtful whether it will be. It does not command a typical arc, expected character development, and feel-good messages about ambition and “reaching for one’s dreams.” But the lack of such qualities is exactly what I loved about it. We need and deserve more films of this caliber.