Whiplash (2014) — Image via mongrelmedia.com

Whiplash

Directed by Damien Chazelle (2014)

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is undoubtedly the best sports film ever made about jazz. To give it a less dubious compliment, it’s a film that manages to keep you on your toes throughout, manipulating your emotions and expectations just as its antagonist, big-band conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) does to its protagonist, talented young drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller). In addition to being the title of a fiendishly difficult piece by Hank Levy, whiplash is, of course, the sensation of having one’s head jerked forward and backward quickly, and that is as apt a description as any of the way viewers are encouraged to lurch between sympathy and revulsion toward Fletcher (and sometimes Andrew) as they drive toward their final confrontation.

Whiplash (2014) — Image via mongrelmedia.comAt the beginning of the film, Andrew has just recently entered Shaffer Conservatory, a fictionalized version of Juilliard where Fletcher is the director of the elite jazz ensemble. When Fletcher comes across Andrew practicing, his interest is piqued, and soon Andrew finds himself an alternate member of Fletcher’s band. As Andrew quickly comes to learn, the charismatic and musically astute Fletcher is also extremely abusive, manipulative, and explosive. As far as Fletcher is concerned, true artists are only motivated, never discouraged, by adversity, and so whatever it takes to motivate them — be it screaming in their faces; hurling ethnic, homophobic, and misogynistic slurs at them; humiliating them with personal information they have told him in confidence; or even throwing things at them — is justified. If all of this scares off those without the talent to succeed, all the better.

As we watch Andrew react to this treatment, we start to see troubling aspects of his own personality. Resentful toward family members who do not recognize his achievements in his field and mystified when the girl he has asked out on a date admits that she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, Andrew gradually narrows his own life down to the single-minded pursuit of greatness, leaving himself vulnerable to Fletcher’s abuse but also somewhat amenable to his methods.

Whiplash (2014) — Image via mongrelmedia.comThat last part is what makes the film interesting, for even as we recoil at Fletcher’s behavior, we see Andrew responding exactly the way Fletcher wants him to, practicing until his hands bleed and taking even more drastic measures to ensure that he has an opportunity to prove himself worthy — all of which would just feed our indignation toward Fletcher’s abuse were the results not so compelling. Every time we see Andrew sit down at a drum kit, his performances take on greater and greater intensity. At a time when so much music — even otherwise well-crafted and interesting music — in so many genres suffers from a shortage of the vitality that comes with a sense of urgency, it is hard not to be impressed by the passion Teller conveys in these scenes.

In the end, of course, Whiplash is not a realistic portrayal of how most great musicians got that way. Its drama is driven by these two particular characters with their particular psychological makeups, and it is compelling largely because of the no-holds-barred performances given by Teller and especially Simmons, who succeeds at completely inhabiting the character of a man whose every move is calculated and who never hesitates in the execution. Buoyed by director and screenwriter Chazelle’s impeccable timing, Simmons and Teller completely dominate the screen for almost two hours, and after the film’s stunning but inconclusive ending, viewers will inevitably walk away with a wide range of theories about what happens to them next.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.