Going into Whiplash, I had a few hesitations. On the surface, it looks like a typical underdog story where our protagonist shows that he (or she) has what it takes to make it. They'll prove everyone wrong, get the girl at the end, and win the day through hard work and determination. You know, something a kin to Rocky or The King's Speech. While there's nothing wrong with those movies - or Whiplash, for that matter - these "types" of movies have lived in cliques and tropes for so long. What separates Whiplash is that it moves to its own beat with an excitement and very smart approach.
Whiplash's story is surprisingly simple, which is very refreshing. It follows Andrew Neyman, played by Miles Teller, a freshman at the prestigious New York music conservatory. He longs to become one of the greatest jazz drummers of all-time, someone like Buddy Rich. Unfortunately, he's not as gifted or talented as many of his classmates, but Neyman's determination to succeed is what drives him, especially when he meets one of the school's highly regarded instructor Terence Fletcher, played wonderfully by J. K. Simmons. Neyman and Fletcher develop a unique relationship fueled by competition and striving for perfection, but make no mistake about it, Whiplash has a mean streak to it that helps aid the bitterness of this student/teacher rivalry and relationship.
It's an odd that goes against audience expectations of how movie "should" work, while playing into those expectations in its own way. While in more conventional movies, we root for Neyman's because of his goals and aspirations, but in Whiplash, we sometimes pity and malign him for his actions and methods. The film starts out with his good intentions, but evolves into an examination of the pitfalls of perfection and ambition. Neyman has no friends and pushes everyone away from him to pursue his goals, while his father, played by Paul Reiser, tries to protect Neyman from himself and his abusive instructor. The result makes for an uneasy, but ultimately engaging film that keeps an audience guessing on what will happen next.
While characters are introduced that would seem somewhat superficial, namely Neyman's love interest Nicole, played by Melissa Benoist, they serve only to further show how far Neyman is willing to go to achieve his goals. Whiplash can get ugly, as we watch how Neyman is willing to destroy every good and genuine relationship in his life to please Fletcher. The film's strong and impressive performances from J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller gives Whiplash its fight and bite.
I was truly shocked how good Miles Teller is in this film. I've been less impressed with him in movies like Divergent and That Awkward Moment, but in Whiplash, Teller truly shines as the film's lead. He gives Whiplash some ugly moments, as his obsession consumes him through and through. Watching him fail again and again is hard at times, while watching him succeed is just as heartbreaking and disturbing. Should Whiplash serve as a cautionary tale or story about perseverance and drive?
J.K. Simmons has the brutish and spiteful mentor Fletcher is the big takeaway from Whiplash. He's the type of actor that's always a pleasure to watch on the big screen, but seeing him as the film's driving force and antagonist is a revelation. It's the type of big performance that makes the film so complex and engaging. The character of Fletcher is really ugly, while played to the tee by Simmons. The sly back-and-forth from Teller and Simmons is a brilliant call-and-responds that is illustrated perfectly in the film's climax.
Damien Chazelle's direction is also something to watch in Whiplash. Chazelle's camera mirrors Neyman's drumming, precise and well-mannered at times, and bombastic and free at others. The way the film was constructed was very considered and nuanced, which aids Chazelle's overall storytelling. Whiplash is very smartly put together and engaging, while at times can feel conventional, despite its subversive nature. Whiplash is more than meets the eye, which reflects its complex and interesting characters, and overall story. It wears its heart on its sleeve and is truly crowd-pleasing in the best possible way. It completely earns its spot as one of the best films of the year!
New York Film Festival 2014. Whiplash opens on October 10, 2014.