A determined young jazz drummer is mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing in the aim of helping him realise his potential.
Miles Teller - Andrew
J.K. Simmons - Fletcher
Question: how do you make a tense thriller that really grips you throughout pushing you to the edge of your seat that is about jazz drumming? Do you take inspiration from Aronofsky's stunning Black Swan and make it a strange, psychological journey enveloped in hypnotic melodrama? Or do you keep the action rather low-key but ensure a continuing underlying threat that could result in an outbreak at any second? Somehow promising young director Damien Chazelle with his film Whiplash, a drama/thriller about jazz drumming out of all the topics in the world, has managed it, and with style placing himself, his film and stars on the Oscar nominations list with real good chances of taking home some of those desired golden statues. Whiplash is a sports film without the sport, though it certainly has more balls! Focusing on the relationship between determined young student Andrew and his tyrannical mentor Fletcher, Whiplash is an intriguing study about what drives people in their hunt for success and what happens is someone is pushed too far on this journey, a journey that will grip you from start to finish.
We first meet Miles Teller's Andrew as a new fish in a very big pond at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York, determined to make his mark his on the world and become the best jazz drummer of all-time. Andrew is shy, talented and alone preferring the company of his drumkit to human connections. His awkward moments with strangers provide some light comic relief, such as the scene where he finally asks the cute girl out at the cinema. But, Andrew is no adorable, dorky drum geek as we expect him to be, as will be revealed when he meets J.K.Simmons' unhinged tutor Fletcher who quickly brings out the cockiness, cruelty and anger that was underneath Andrew's quiet exterior. Fletcher pushes our young protagonist to the edge and soon Andrew's determination to achieve success makes everything else simply an obstacle to this, whether that be his girlfriend or a car crash. Teller excels in the role making the transition from sweet daddy's boy to egotistical, manic screwball seamless. In the final scene, that will really blow you away with ratcheted tension and insane drumming, Teller's face will be what you remember as his sweat and blood pour onto the drum set as his tutor glares down onto him with a mixture of admiration and hatred. The role must have been both mentally and physically exhausting for Teller, but the effort he put in is clearly seen and respected on screen with his exhilarating performance.
Although Teller gives an excellent performance with a compellingly complex character Whiplash will always be J.K. Simmons' film. Of course both of the actors feed off each other in the dynamic and violent relationship that drives them both to the edge. But, Simmons' Fletcher is masterfully created and his fire is what drives the film. If Malcolm Tucker was a music tutor the result would not be too similar from Whiplash's Fletcher. When he strides into his room flexing his arm muscles he immediately takes command of everyone and everything inside it. All eyes are on him as soon as his shadow is seen through the door and the fear of the students is immediately felt. Simmons takes a cracking script and just runs with it barking out lines such as 'get the fuck out of my sight before I demolish you' with a curl of the lip and spit shooting out of his mouth. He is quite frankly terrifying, a storm that can be unleashed at any moment. One second he will be conducting, the next he will be throwing a chair at your head. Isn't jazz music supposed to be calming? Despite this he is never a villain. Director and writer Chazelle ensures Fletcher's character keeps shifting and at points we see him vulnerable, weak and human. Or do we? Thanks to some incredible writing and Simmons spectacular performance we are never sure what is going on with Fletcher, whether we can trust him and whether he is in the right or the wrong. The ending will especially leave this question unanswered. That is the true beauty of the film and of the characters, nothing is ever settled, nothing is ever still and you never know who to trust or who is in the right. Constantly shifting this makes it an even more tense watch and after it ends you may need a relaxing head massage as your brain stresses over whether Fletcher was right or wrong.
Chazelle has really achieved something with Whiplash creating a tense and dramatic film that has a fantastic story, incredible performances and two dynamic and complex characters whose relationship is just fascinating to watch develop. As an added bonus the cinematography is just gorgeous and the fact it was shot in only nineteen days is just amazing. The drumming is insane and the songs great, of course it had to be though in a film about talented musicians. Although it does lack lustre at certain points where the tension hits a low point, the extreme finale makes up for this and will leave you agape at the end. Whiplash proves you do not need melodrama in a psychological drama/thriller, and nor do you need millions of dollars, various set locations and a list of big name stars. All you need is two men, one room, a drumkit and a pair of drumsticks. And... Voilà!