Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)

February 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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So everybody’s raving on about this little movie called Whiplash that is tearing up the critics circle and earned a Best Picture nod for the Oscars later this month. Naturally, I had to check it out, and now I’m singing its praises like everyone else.

Whiplash is a testament to what a bold idea, a strong script and capable actors can deliver notwithstanding a shoestring budget of just US$3.3 million. To be honest I don’t think this is the type of movie I would have considered watching had it not received so much hype. I don’t know about you, but the idea of a drama about a student jazz drummer and his volatile teacher doesn’t exactly rock my boat. And yet, thanks to positive word of mouth, Whiplash has become one of my dark horse favourites of the year.

The story centers on 19-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller), a seemingly regular teenager except for his obsessive ambition to be the best drummer in the world. Andrew attends New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, and a step in reaching his goal is to get onto the band of renowned conductor Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons), a horrifying human being who loves driving his students not just to the edge, but flying right over the cliff Thelma-and-Louise style.

It may sound like a “meh” premise, but Whiplash is no doubt one of the most explosive and intense movies of the year. Apart from the tension from the constant thumping of the drums, my heart pounded every time Fletcher was on screen and about to rip into one his students. The fear and anxiety they felt was very terrifying, but also very human. I was on the edge of my seat from the very first scene, and I don’t even care much for drumming. I guess never knew music schools and jazz bands could be so cutthroat, and that the blood, sweat and tears could be — in this case — so real.

Full credit to writer and director Damien Chazelle in his sophomore effort for making every scene count. It’s one of those films where you don’t really know where it’s heading, and yet you don’t care because you’re so caught up in the moment. Some of the characters may seem like caricatures at first, but they reveal more and more of themselves — most of which are negative character traits — as the film progresses.

One of my favourite scenes from the entire movie was Andrew sitting at the dinner table with his family, who clearly think more of sporting achievements than musical ones. It’s a brilliantly constructed scene with beautiful dialogue, and despite it being one of the only scenes involving Andrew’s family, it was all the audience needed to know about them and Andrew’s simmering ego below an apparently timid surface.

Most of you have probably seen JK Simmons do his curt, straight-faced deliveries before, though he’s never been this good before. The viciousness he pours into Fletcher cuts right to the bone, and yet there is a “I’m doing this for your own good” vibe that underlies his nuanced performance. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar is well deserved.

The real revelation of the film is Miles Teller, who absolutely got snubbed by the Oscar committee for his portrayal of Andrew, whose single-minded obsession drives the soul of the narrative. Teller first grabbed my attention in Rabbit Hole, and despite not having movie-star looks he appears to be headed for big things by snagging the role of Mr Fantastic in the new Fantastic 4 remake (and judging from the teaser trailer, it’s gonna be gooooood).

Whiplash also makes some interesting observations about talent, hard work and the type of teaching methods employed by Fletcher. We want our kids to aim for clear goals in life, but at what point does obsession with success become self-destructive? And is pushing students beyond their limits so they can be truly great worth the cost? How many people have to be demoralized and destroyed so that one can rise up above the rest? Whiplash doesn’t answer these questions, but it certainly will make you think about them.

At 109 minutes, it is arguable that Whiplash‘s running time is a little long for a film of its kind, though much of that could be blamed on a crazy climax some might think is over the top. Personally, I didn’t mind it because the satisfaction from the pay-off is well worth the wait.

This is an unusual film with an allure that is difficult to grasp. The experience speaks for itself, and you don’t have to love music or drumming to be riveted by its brilliance.

4.5 stars out of 5