Sony Pictures Classics
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references.
Running time: 106 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
“Whiplash” puts us in the deliciously uncomfortable position of rooting for the shared success of two characters who are unlikable individually and toxic together.
It’s one of the most disturbing entertaining movies I’ve seen in a long while. The only thing I can compare it to would be watching a Stanley Kubrick film, although the second feature from 29-year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle couldn’t be more different stylistically from the chilly and precise work of the late master; it’s feverishly alive and relentlessly intense. Still, “Whiplash” similarly provokes contradictory reactions and emotions. It wows you and makes you squirm simultaneously. I can’t say I enjoyed myself, but I also can’t deny being dazzled.
Chazelle takes us inside an incredibly specific world of elite, New York City jazz musicians, and yet the desire for greatness he depicts is universal. The question becomes whether the characters take their quest too far to the detriment of their own health and sanity — which forces us to consider whether we’d go that far in our own pursuits if we were as gifted. Superficially, the mentor-student relationship at play here may look like the kind you’ve seen a million times before in films like “The Karate Kid,” where the teaching tactics seem questionable at first but end up yielding winning results when The Big Competition rolls around.
But “Whiplash” takes the notion of that kind of singular drive to an extreme and turns it into a psychotic obsession — for both parties involved. The fact that we’re not completely repulsed by these people has a great deal to do with performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons which are brimming with both power and vulnerability. Teller, as up-and-coming drummer Andrew Neyman, expands on the promise of his surprisingly subtle dramatic turn in last year’s excellent “The Spectacular Now.” He is not the glib party boy here; he does not want to be liked. And Simmons is just a beast. We haven’t seen him in such formidable form since his days as a neo-Nazi behind bars on “Oz.” Shiny and buff in a tight, black T-shirt, he is the most frightening villain you’ll see all year.
Simmons’ character, Dr. Fletcher, is the demanding conductor of a competitive jazz ensemble at the most prestigious music conservatory in the country. He is a walking, talking, living, breathing mind-fuck. He’s as brilliant at what he does as he is brutal to work for — and impressing him is all Andrew wants to do in life. Simply getting into this school isn’t enough for him; emerging as one of the greatest jazz drummers ever is the ultimate goal.
But this is no underdog, come-from-behind, feel-good tale of glory. This is “Dead Poets Society” with a sadomasochistic streak. Fletcher cruelly berates Andrew for the slightest perceived mistake (which actually might not be a mistake at all — he might just be messing with the kid for kicks). He throws chairs across the room as quickly as he hurls racial and homophobic slurs to cut his players to the core. He’s been so notoriously punishing for so long, it makes you wonder how’s he’s gotten away with his act all this time.
Andrew already had a tendency to be hard on himself, to withdraw from society in the pursuit of perfection. (His father, played in sweet and sympathetic fashion by Paul Reiser, is pretty much his only friend and a welcome source of warmth in the film.) And so a little blood on the drum kit — make that a lot of blood — is no big deal as he struggles to master the impossible tempo of the titular tune, “Whiplash.” It’s all part of the master plan, yet it’s agonizing for us to watch; if there’s a line between art and madness, Andrew gushes all over it. But just as painful is the way he rejects his would-be girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), the cute young woman who works the concession counter at his favorite arthouse theater, because his arrogance allows no room for other people.
As Andrew and Fletcher push and challenge each other — as they sometimes bond but mostly get under one another’s skin — Chazelle’s script takes some turns and offers some obstacles with outcomes that aren’t always entirely plausible. But it all leads up to the film’s exhilarating conclusion: an extended drum solo that will make you hold your breath in awe, wondering how much longer it can possibly go on. (Teller did much of his own drumming for the film, and his dedication adds to the immersive sense of authenticity.)
The scene is the ultimate example of the magnificent editing from Tom Cross, who deserves to win every award available to him and even some that haven’t been invented yet. The way he’s cut Chazellle’s film makes it move with such complex fluidity, it feels like jazz itself — constantly thrilling and challenging you at the same time, working hard but making it all look effortless. While Chazelle ponders whether such passionate ambition is worth the mental and physical toll it takes, the film’s final triumph provides no easy answers.