Wednesday, 22 October 2014
FILM REVIEW: WHIPLASH
The two most harmful words in the English language, according to Terence Fletcher, the God-like teacher at the New York Conservatory of Music, are 'good job'. For Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), mediocrity breeds contempt and Hell hath no fury like this music instructor underwhelmed; his temperament is more Zeus than Jesus, and he's more likely to throw thunderbolts -- or a drum cymbal -- your way than a compliment.
Understandably, Fletcher's students live in fear and awe of the man; desperate to be selected for his jazz band, desperate to please him and equally desperate not to incur his wrath. Andrew (Miles Teller) is one such student. A first-year pupil on scholarship, Andrew has a way with the drums and a desire to be recognised as one of the greats. Being chosen as a member of Fletcher's jazz band -- which competes in State competitions -- is a sure sign he's on his way.
It's also the beginning of a nightmare in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, a film that makes drumming seem like a vocation as fraught as bomb disposal, and an experience which will leave Andrew's -- and the audience's -- nerves completely frazzled.
Chazelle, making just his second feature with Whiplash, and expanding upon his own similarly titled short film, explores themes about the pursuit of perfection in art, and the giving over of one's self completely in that pursuit. It's similar territory to Black Swan (2010), but unlike Natalie Portman's ballerina, it's all but Andrew's mind that is left unscathed.
For Andrew, the pursuit of greatness involves the abandonment of a life outside of music; dumping his sweet girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) in a brutally honest break-up scene, because he doesn't want her to come to resent his focus on drumming nor he to resent her for holding him back. He also puts his body on the line on more than one occasion.
Miles Teller is a young actor who continues to impress. After Rabbit Hole (2010) and The Spectacular Now (2013), he again proves that he is the real deal. Teller is no pretty boy headed for matinee idol status but the guy can act. As charming as the best of them, he also possesses a steeliness which allows him to be tough and unforgiving when required.
J.K. Simmons' Fletcher is equally unforgiving. There's perhaps one too many homophobic missives fired off by Fletcher -- lest you forget he truly is an awful person -- but there's no denying the fun to be had in hearing the maestro tearing his pupils a new one, nor the fun Simmons must have had in playing him. Perhaps best known as the kind-of-cool dad in Juno (2007), here he plays the drill sergeant teacher from Hell, sinking his teeth into the role and the scenery.
But as sadistic as Fletcher is, Andrew is equally masochistic: drumming until his fingers bleed and coming back time and again for more of his teacher's abuse. Even after they part ways, Andrew can't help but be drawn back to Fletcher to seek, and hopefully win, his approval.
If the love of Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) is unconditional and undemanding, Fletcher's is hard-won and all the more rewarding for it. It's tough love in extremis but Fletcher, it seems, completes Andrew in what might just be the most dysfunctional movie romance of 2014.
Whiplash is definitely one of the better films of the year, even as, like Andrew's drum solo in the film's tension-filled climax, it goes on a little too long and slightly wayward. Perfect it may not be but when it's on a roll and in full flight, Whiplash is much, much more than a job well done.