By Alan Flood
Whiplash is a tight, thoughtful and exhilarating film based on director Damien Chazelle’s 2013 short film of the same name. It’s the sort of movie that sucks the air out of the cinema, not allowing its audience’s mind to wander for an instant, demanding their utmost and constant attention. This is partly down to a devastatingly intense performance from JK Simmons as well as the power of Chazell’s story and the careful unwinding of the idea at the centre of its plot. One of the more riveting and refreshing aspects of Whiplash is it does not offer us a definitive conclusion in its ending but instead poses a difficult philosophical question about the lengths one should go in the pursuit of moulding talent into greatness.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a talented jazz drummer in his first year at a prestigious music conservatory. Miles’ talent is swiftly recognised by Fletcher (JK Simmons), a renowned and eccentric band leader. Fletcher’s philosophy is that raw talent must be bullied, abused, threatened, and embarrassed or it will never feel the need to prove it’s self on an obsessive level and subsequently prosper into true, true greatness. ‘There are no two words in the English language more harmful then ‘well done’, he warns at one point.
In Miles, Fletcher finds a drummer matching his heightened level of obsessive fervour, a young man already lacking in a male role model who is desperate for his approval despite his treatment at Fletcher’s hands. Miles’ own Father (Paul Reiser) is everything Fletcher is not, happy and loving, positive and genuinely supportive. He’s only looking out for his Son and his Son’s best interests yet Miles is far more interested in gaining the approval of Fletcher, as his Father lacks his Sons passion and seriousness. The interesting thing is, as an audience we fully understand Miles’ view.
Indeed Miles’ Father may just be the only likeable character in the film. Miles himself is obnoxious and arrogant in equal measure, dismissing the little successes of relatives against his own, breaking up with his girlfriend because she doesn’t have it all quite as figured out as he does. Simmons is something else entirely. An utter obsessive and a bully, his performance is as excellent as it is hilarious. It’s a strange human trait how inherently funny we find poetic verbal abuse once we’re not on its receiving end. The script is tightly wound and although the plot is conventional enough so that we feel some turns in the plot before we take them, the story is such an engrossing one and the performances so excellent that it doesn’t deter.
For all the many ways we find Fletcher’s character grotesque and heinous, in the end his contention is flawless. His actions lead to Andrew reaching a level of potential that he likely would have fallen short of without Fletcher’s methods. His methods of coarse are unacceptable, but Whiplash joy is that it asks the audience the question of whether, in the end, the bad guy was right all along.