WHIPLASH is faster, more brutal and more exhilarating than even its fast, brutal and exhilarating title would suggest. It’s also, fittingly, just as painful. Rarely have I found myself visibly wincing through the entirety of a feature film. Whiplash is so frightening it made the hairs on the back of my cat’s neck stand up, and she wasn’t even in the same town.
Such is the overwhelming psychic force of the film. Adapted from writer/director Damien Chazelle’s acclaimed 2012 short of the same name, this is a coming-of-age story recast as a deeply distressing psychological thriller. In documenting the struggles of a young drummer prodigy against a mythical, Olympian terror of an instructor, Whiplash burrows deep into the heart of personal ambition, perfectionism and the sheer, unrelenting will to succeed, no matter what the cost.
This latter characteristic is the central focus of Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a gifted jazz drummer attending the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. Emotionally distant, friendless and motherless, Nieman encounters conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who introduces him into his Studio Band. Courteous and genial at first, Fletcher proceeds to mercilessly harangue Nieman and the other bandmates for the tiniest of errors, grinding them down in the hopes they will rise from the ashes of their self-esteem.
The relationship between the two, relatively straightforward at first, only intensifies and expands as the film snaps along. Fletcher’s mastery of manipulation forces us to carefully scrutinise everything he says and, like Nieman, we never know where we stand in our evaluation of his character. Teller, as the young man locked in this battle of wills, perfectly embodies Nieman’s relentless drive to be the best in the manner of Buddy Rich and, via a repeated anecdote, Charlie Parker.
Simmons, meanwhile, who most famously essayed J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, is jaw-dropping. A perfect complement to Teller’s whirl of sticks and sweat, Simmons is taut and unreadable. Bald, dressed only in black, he is pristine and unmatchable, amicable and terrifying. “Do you think you’re out of tune?” he screams at a crying band member, “There’s no fucking Mars bar down there!” The next minute, there are tears in his eyes as he recounts the fate of an ex-pupil of his. He’s a fully-realised character, the veins on his bulging arms etched with chequered – probably painful – history.
To call him a force of unholy nature is to do him a disservice. If the Best Supporting Actor Oscar doesn’t already have his name lovingly stapled onto its golden plaque already, then it damn well “fatherfucking” should be. The easiest comparison to make is R. Lee Ermey’s turn as Drill Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, but Simmons goes, astonishingly, even further – he’s also in it for longer, which is always a boon.
But even scenes that don’t feature Fletcher are fraught with tension. Nieman’s mad dash to retrieve his drumsticks, a deeply strained family dinner and his own demented practice sessions are just as electric as Fletcher’s endlessly imaginative ways of pummelling him into shape. The most arresting example is when he forces Nieman and his two alternates to perform a gruelling double-time swing to “my tempo” for five hours until one of them, mercifully, gets it right.
Though only his second feature-length production, Chazelle’s effort is anything but sophomoric. Though largely set in a high school among adolescents, he never exploits the creaking stereotypes or clichés of the environment. Even when a budding romance blooms, Chazelle is deadly quick to subvert our expectations.
In portraying the student-teacher relationship at the heart of the film, he twists and wrangles our understanding of it into a fevered Gordian knot of mutual respect and enmity, always climbing toward a truly heartstopping finale. Thankfully, the battle between Nieman and Fletcher never descends into outright physical violence. Fletcher’s abuse is entirely verbal (with the occasional slap and chair-fling) and Nieman’s response is to drum even harder.
To call a film with drumming in it ‘rhythmic’ is, perhaps, an empty platitude, but the sound design and editing are of such peerless quality that it’s difficult to say anything otherwise. Tom Cross’ work in the editing booth is nothing short of astonishing, with cuts and pace as sharp as any snare roll. The thunderous sound design and music from Justin Hurwitz mirrors the ramping intensity of Nieman’s drumming, hurling blasts of crashing bebop over his furious rudiments.
Whiplash is an instant classic, and one of the most masterfully constructed films of the last few years. It’s a wonderful, harrowing, spectacular, monstrous, grisly, brutal piece of work from a cast and crew with truly golden futures. I’m still counting my bruises.