Whiplash Review

Posted: November 19, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

whiplash_poster_1Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Last year saw a wave of coming of age films depicting awkward teens/young men discovering their identities in ways that fused drama and comedy. Of course, there have always been films like this, but they seemed especially prominent last year with films like The Way, Way Back, The Spectacular Now, and The Kings of Summer. It was a movement I had no interest in and was fairly annoyed by it by year’s end. This year’s movie Whiplash might seem to be cut from the same cloth on paper. It premiered at Sundance, focused on a young upper middle class white guy’s struggle, and even starred The Spectacular Now’s Miles Teller. However all one had to do was look at the trailer to see that while there may be some superficial similarities, Whiplash is an entirely different animal.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a freshman at Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the United States. Neiman is a drummer and catches the eye of Shaffer’s Jazz conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who places Neiman in his band. Though this is a great honour, it becomes clear that it’s also an arduous experience as Fletcher is abusive, both physically and psychologically, to his students in order to inspire the best of them. This causes Neiman to really push himself to his limits in order to go as far as one can.

Whiplash is a film interested in exploring an artists’ strive for perfection and all that comes with it. The central question is whether Fletcher’s extreme method of motivation really works. One could certainly argue that the kind of pressure he places on students’ forces them to push themselves and not just be content with mediocrity. But on the other hand, is he pushing too hard? Would some of his students been able to do better had they received more constructive criticism? On top of that, even if Fletcher’s method does work and can make some great musicians, is it really worth it? Throughout the film, we see the mental effect Fletcher’s style has on Neiman and what it causes him to do, and for the most part these decisions don’t make him very happy. Writer/director Damien Chazelle is able to explore all this in a nuanced way and never makes a definitive argument for one side or the other. Beyond that, the film types into larger themes of a more pampered generation that may feel better about themselves, but is compromised, by and large, of more mediocre work.

Much of the praise for the film has fallen on J.K. Simmons and it’s very much deserved. Simmons brings the perfect amount of intensity to the role of Fletcher and is a very intimidating, dominating presence whenever he’s on screen. He also takes a role which could have easily felt tiresome in a lesser actor’s hands and gives it a lot of depth. Fletcher may be hard and abusive, but he truly believes that, on some level, he’s helping his students attain their full potential. He’s not just a bully, and Simmons performance is a big part of why that works, and by extension the film’s larger themes work. There’s also a certain mystery to Fletcher’s character where one is never sure if he’s being genuine or trying to test Neiman in some way, and Simmons plays with that aspect just right. Miles Teller’s work isn’t as notable as his co-star, but he delivers a fine performance all the same. He really sells the drive and obsession to be the best, while remaining a sympathetic character despite doing some questionable things himself.

This is Damien Chazelle’s debut film and his work is impressive. The direction is quite confident and Chazelle makes some interesting decisions here and there. It isn’t overly stylish or masterful, but he definitely shows flair and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes next. The scenes where the band is performing are especially great as Chazelle finds interesting ways to shoot and edit these scenes. The climax is especially exciting in this regard. Where Chazelle stumbles is in linking all of these scenes together. Though the film is made up of strong moments, they don’t feel as connected as they should be. The climax in particular, though well-executed in isolation, does not quite feel organic to everything else. This is the central problem holding Whiplash back.

Currently, and in the coming months, we’re seeing a mix of highly ambitious films being released by masterful filmmakers at the top of their game and tent-pole blockbusters with high production value and massive audiences. In this kind of environment, it’s easy for little films like Whiplash to get lost in the shuffle, and that’s a shame. This may be a film of modest goals, but it’s very well-made and features some great acting, an interesting story, and engaging themes. Don’t let it slip under your radar.

A-

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s