Its opening moments recall Manhattan, with the beautiful city of New York pitted against the thumping sounds of sexy jazz, and it’s from there Whiplash has you. It’s written and directed by Damien Chazelle, his first commercial film, and it’s a name you don’t know now but soon will. J.K. Simmons endearingly calls him a child since he’s only a few years older than I am. He’s 29, but despite his age, or rather in spite of it, he made one of the best films of 2014. Chazelle said he suffers from anxiety, but other than the realism of the psychology of Whiplash (an op-ed piece waiting to be written), it’s impossible to tell. This is a film made by a director with the Orson Welles complex, with the reckless confidence of a neophyte but with the skill of a veteran. He’s young enough to take stupid risks, like embedding kinetic close-ups of symbols crashing and hands clapping within scenes that, at least narratively, don’t call for them. Chazelle is ambitious, but his ambition is dark, twisted, and beautiful. Whiplash is the sadist’s sports movie, a psychological thriller that hurts.
Miles Teller plays a 19-year-old jazz drummer in the best and most competitive music school in the country, the Shaffer Conservatory, and he blew me away. Seen in The Spectacular Now and Divergent, he showed promise but not always potential, and here he delivers an extraordinary performance in a year where the batting average of male starring roles is at an amazing high. He’s raw without being hyperbolic and has an earnest Benjamin Braddock quality that keeps him likable even when doing things we disagree with. Teller’s character, named Andrew Neiman, doesn’t want a comfortable career. He doesn’t want to be a journeyman jazz player that has skill but not ingenuity, more David Fincher and less Edward Zwick. (I would give jazz metaphors, but I know nothing of jazz)
Scenes between him and his emotionally abusive but famous jazz instructor/conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), are everything you’ve ever feared about a teacher-student relationship. If you’ve had nightmares where your teacher publicly humiliates and shames you, Fletcher makes that seem like a comforting dream. If he was your teacher, he might make you bleed. In one of many scenes that made my body tighten and my face wince, Fletcher forces three drummers to take turns trying to get in tempo for a complex song. Relentless drumming continues for hours, and by its end, the drum set is covered in blood. Their hands have been splintered and bruised by the force of their own drumsticks hitting their instrument, and their hands look like those of prisons of war.
Whiplash is a dichotomous character study between Neiman and Fletcher, they’re foils as much as two halves of a whole, and there’s a sick argument to be made this is a love story. Their relationship is toxic, not because Fletcher yells and demeans with the same enthusiasm first grade teachers hand out gold stars, but because underneath Fletcher’s torturous authority, Neiman actually agrees with him. Neiman likes the abuse. He might not like that he likes it, but he does because he wants to be the best. It might be too revealing to say a part of me, maybe a big part, sat in the screening with smug admiration for what Fletcher and Neiman sought to do. They became a muse for one another, a carrot on a stick towards greatness, satiating their mutual over-ambition. Whiplash is inspiring, and if that’s scary, that might be the point. Whiplash is a parable for the cost of becoming an artist, and I left the theater masochistically wishing I had someone there to push me to the peaks of my talent as a critic. The best psychological thrillers investigate not just the character’s brains but also your own, and you’ll leave the film struggling to answer how far is too far.
That every non-lead is criminally underwritten would be a critical flaw if it wasn’t to give even more of the literal and proverbial spotlight to Neiman and Fletcher. Besides, Teller and Simmons give two performances that stand so tall the rest of the cast is in shadow. For any other actor, Terence Fletcher might have been a career-defining role, but for J.K. Simmons it’s a high peak in a career of peaks. It’s a surprisingly physical performance, with every nuanced gesture and facial tick embodying an animal for which there is no living metaphor. He moves with the delicate grace of a cat but the intimidating brawn of a pit bull. We’ve seen this part before, whether it’s an asshole boss or Alec Baldwin giving a speech about good leads, but Simmons gives him so many dimensions he should have been a character in Interstellar. There’s an ambiguous emotional undercurrent to the character that makes him mysterious, and the reason Whiplash plays so well to audiences and critics is exactly how powerful the characters, their relationships, and the performances fueling them are.
Whiplash is one of the most exciting films to be released this year, outdoing big blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy for roller coaster thrills with a third act that’s as exhilarating as anything this year just as easily as it eclipses art house favorites like Under the Skin for artistry. My worry is that without the lead performances and snappy direction Whiplash’s skeleton is so thin you’d worry it has osteoporosis. If I like it slightly less than some, that’s why. But a rip-roaring energy surges through Whiplash, and from the opening of Manhattan to the closing on a stage, your heart beats to the exaggerated pulse of double time swing.