By André Crous
Malcolm Gladwell says it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery of a craft. But in Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating and at times unnerving second feature film, Whiplash, we see that sometimes all a budding professional needs is a teacher from hell. Enter J.K. Simmons, clad in black and ready to rumble.
Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a diabolical conductor whose presence at the elite Shaffer Conservatory sends chills down the spines of his students as much as his colleagues. He does not suffer fools gladly. He expects only the best, often more, and when he thinks his band is not taking the music, their performance or their skills as seriously as he does, he can quickly start spewing a tirade comprising ever-more-complex concatenations of obscenity-laden expressions: Think of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and then turn it up to 11. In the film’s attention-grabbing opening scene, Fletcher’s eye catches the talent of a young jazz drummer, but while he deigns to speak to the boy, it is immediately obvious he is not there for small talk, and when he decides the tempo is not to his liking, he leaves as abruptly as he appeared.
The young student is called Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), but even though he appears in every single scene in the film, we don’t learn his name until a handful of scenes into the story. By contrast, Fletcher’s ominous presence hangs over the school and all its students like the Sword of Damocles, and we cannot ignore him. It often happens that he flips at the drop of a baton from smiling and patient to sociopathic tyrant. We see him have a near hysterical outburst early on when he hears the instrument of someone in his band is out of tune, dissolving the culprit to tears with insults about his intellect, his talent and his weight. In the very next scene, he whispers playfully, intimately to Neimann, teasing personal information from him, before knocking him down to size five minutes later in a very public way.
Chazelle has fashioned not only a riveting study of a young man’s struggle as a musician and the tough decisions he has to make if he is to have a chance at success, but also a visually stunning piece of filmmaking that weds rich colors and beautiful lighting with dynamic editing. One scene also appeared in the eponymous short film that first showcased his talents at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction, and it is to Chazelle’s credit that there is equally palpable, overbearing tension in both versions.
Neimann remains inscrutable for a large part of the film. We see him spending time watching Rififi at the movies with his father, a high-school English teacher who wants his son to be happy but also wants him to have greater certainty of stability on the horizon. They are still close, but when the authoritative (and authoritarian) Fletcher takes an interest in Neimann’s talents, even when he treats him like dirt and hurls homophobic, anti-Semitic and many other kinds of slurs at him, the boy is ready to take almost any psychological abuse in order to reach the top. When he matter-of-factly dumps his girlfriend because he can’t foresee a future that has space for both his music and her, we get a queasy feeling he might be willing to risk everything in the name of being a drummer worthy of Fletcher’s faint praise.
The rehearsal room at the school is the setting for blood, sweat and tears – all of which Neimann spills at one point or another on his way to focusing on his craft with dedication that requires equal measures narcissism and lunacy, and in this regard at least Fletcher serves as a role model. The feared conductor doesn’t just put his students through their paces. No, that would be too easy. He puts them through a meat grinder, but those who survive the initial hazing are still not safe but only as good as their last chord.
For all its commitment and focus, the story does veer off the rails into far less credible territory in its final moments. The climactic scene is staged with great passion and a sense of showmanship for the director that is entirely effective, but there are numerous things that don’t make much sense in retrospect. Regardless of its credibility, however, the tension and the terror the situation elicits in the viewer are so acute that some might find the material difficult to watch. And although he is only 19 years old, Neimann seems terribly naïve and is always surprised when his mentor abuses him over and over again.
Be careful what you wish for, Chazelle suggests. No pain, no gain. He strikes a wonderful balance between tragedy and comedy, even in his visuals: The opening scenes are filled with push-ins that are simultaneously hilarious by virtue of their sheer quantity and creepy because we don’t know whether they represent a looming danger.
Simmons plays one of the most unforgettable bullies in recent memory, a truly odious disciplinarian who feels no regret and believes he is doing the world a service by pushing people to their limits. When his perceived sadism dovetails with the masochism of a student willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his art, that may very well be where a master is born, but signing a contract with the devil has its downsides. The impressionable Neimann is proud of his bruises, because he thinks it makes him stronger and more resistant on his path to greatness, but whether he will ever get there remains an open question.
But there can be no question that Whiplash is evidence of a great talent. Despite a weak narrative in the final act, the film is captivating as it traces the claustrophobia of a young man’s determined struggle to prove himself. The 29-year-old Chazelle doesn’t have much to worry about: He has already proved he is a force to be reckoned with.
Director(s) Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter(s) Damien Chazelle
Directors of Photography Sharone Meir
Running Time 105 minutes
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩