When the blood begins to spurt from the webbing between his thumb and his forefinger, seeming to splash in time with the unrelenting jazz drumbeat, you just want it to be over. In fact, you wanted it to be over three minutes ago, when you could see the post-traumatic stress already beginning to form in the furrows of Niemann’s (Miles Teller) brow, when you began to wince in time as his instructor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) bellows, “Not quite my tempo!” while Teller furiously slaps his sticks against the stretched canvas of his drums, searching desperately for the right beat.
When the scene finally does end, you find yourself able to let out the breath you’d been holding in; laugh a little; let out a quiet, “Jesus Christ,” and keep watching—you didn’t take your eyes from the screen once.
This is the essence of Whiplash, a brilliantly edited and beautifully acted film about the intensity of the music world. Whiplash asks the question, “how far is too far when cultivating greatness?” Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a conservatory jazz band teacher who never quite made it himself, but pushes his students to incredible limits; Teller is his willful, driven drum student with undeniable talent, Andrew Niemann.
The cinematography is tense and precise, the tone matching the frenzied drum solos that punctuate the film. It’s a taut piece throughout, landing at a clean 106 minutes. It’s enough time to tell the story it wants to tell—and although that story may not be new per se, it feels fresh and unseen. This quality is owed equally, I think, to Damien Chazelle’s direction (impressively only on his second feature), and Teller and Simmons’ performances.
Teller’s strengths lie in his aptitude for natural sounding dialogue—his performance in 2013’s The Spectacular Now speaks to his ability to convey realistic and complex characters; he masters a nuanced combination of approachability and detachment that draws you in. Whiplash is no exception. Teller covers all the bases—the nervous guy on a date, the brother who doesn’t quite fit in with his family, the determined, oft-times arrogant artist—and he does so in a way that still makes you believe his character.
Simmons is incredible here too, playing Fletcher as both wise and petty, both sincere and cynical. That split personality keeps the audience on edge. At one moment, Fletcher seems to form a genuine connection with his students—at the next, he’s screaming at them like a drill sergeant at Guantanamo Bay.
“There are no two worse words in the English language than good job,” Fletcher advises Niemann over a drink near the three-fourths mark of the film. It’s a jarring statement in a world where participation trophies seem to adorn every mantelpiece, and an interesting position to consider. Fletcher is a man who arguably pushes boundaries to breakability—but is it all worth it to find the one star who can rise above the barrage of abuse to true prodigiousness?
Lovingly edited, directed and acted, Whiplash is an essential cinematic experience. It deserves all the accolades it has received so far—and one would be remiss to forgo that final scene.