Drama Film Review

The Backbeat of a Film Review: Whiplash

October 24, 2014Ben MK

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Bang the drum (not so) slowly...

Drive. Perseverance. Commitment. This is the stuff that turns dreams into reality. And Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) has got it in spades. Motivated by a single purpose — to be one of jazz music's greats — he pushes himself to his physical and mental limits, sacrificing relationships and even his own well-being, all for the sake of perfecting his craft. But how far is too far? Under the intense tutelage of wily-eyed music professor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) — maestro and masochist extraordinaire — Andrew will discover the answer.


A student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, Andrew is just one of many hoping to turn their love of music into a fruitful career. But with the competition being fierce, it's not easy, especially when what you're vying for is the attention of Terence Fletcher.

Both loathed and revered, Fletcher's reputation as a hard-nosed music maniac precedes him, and his shadow looms long through the halls of Shaffer. But does the end justify his radical means? In other words, is there a method to his madness, or is he just a sociopath who prefers taking out his anger on unsuspecting students?

These are the things that will run through moviegoers' minds while watching Whiplash, the debut feature from writer/director Damien Chazelle, which does for jazz music what films like Moneyball have done for sports, distilling the art form to a tale of pure blood, sweat and passion — with an emphasis on the blood and the sweat.

You don't have to be a jazz aficionado to get swept up in the story. Just about anyone who's ever sacrificed something in pursuit of a goal will easily identify with Andrew and his struggles. But the character does take things to unusual (even borderline cartoonish) extremes: practicing his drumming till his hands are raw and bloody and sabotaging his own relationship with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) because he anticipates she'll hold him back. At one point, he even insists on playing, in spite of sustaining serious injuries, with disastrous results.

Still, Teller's performance is nothing short of engrossing, both in straightforward scenes where he's simply engaging other actors in conversation, but especially when he contorts his face in agony, sweat dripping off his brow, as he tries his hardest to be Shaffer's answer to the Energizer Bunny. The actor also has a natural on-screen rapport with Paul Reiser, who plays his supportive father, a failed writer (turned high school English teacher) who has trouble comprehending why his son would put himself through such torture.

However, the film wouldn't be nearly half as interesting without Simmons, filling a role that often seems to exist purely to antagonize Andrew, viciously tearing him down whenever he manages to claim a small victory. In another actor's hands, Fletcher could easily have devolved into a caricature, but Simmons has a knack for this type of performance. He machine-guns his way through line after line of sarcastically scathing dialog, commanding the audience's full attention every time he strides on-screen, and it's his interplay with Teller that gives the film its mesmerizing rhythm.

The Bottom Line Ultimately, Whiplash isn't concerned with fitting into a mold. It's not an inspirational tale about an underdog overcoming adversity. It's more of a character study about the lengths to which we'll go to succeed, driven by two core performances: Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. One is a portrait of a young man pushed to extremes as he strives to realize his goals, while the other is both his tormentor and his mentor. They're two halves of the same coin. Neither could exist without the other. And with an end result this compelling, nor would you want them to.  Ben Mk

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this film review were adapted from my TIFF review of the film, published on September 9th, 2014.

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