Review by Byron Bixler
From the April 2015 Issue
Have you ever had a passion for something? Something you love to do? Something you need to do? Is it painting? Is it singing? Directing films or writing novels? Even something not related to the arts. How about sports? Kicking field goals, hitting 3-pointers or running laps? Perhaps business gets your blood pumping…or maybe it’s the blood of others: saving lives in the field of medicine? Now take that one step further: Think about being the best. Has that thought ever crossed your mind? I know that it’s crossed mine. It doesn’t even have to be an obsession- a stray thought here or there would suffice. If only for a fleeting moment, most of us have considered the possibility of being truly exceptional. Many have given it a shot. “Give it your all,” we’re told. “Do your best.” But in a competitive field like any of those I listed, sometimes your “best” is not enough. Very few reach that mantle of singular excellence. Many hours are spent and usually, blood is spilt, but they get there and no matter how tumultuous or short the life may be, it is a life that will be remembered.
Whiplash is about that struggle for transcendence. On paper, it’s a story about a young man having to go through an abusive teacher in his pursuit of being one of the greatest drummers of all time. The setting is specific and so is the tone. This could have been any field, any form of greatness and yet, director Damien Chazelle chose to make a film on something he knows and that is the first reason why Whiplash is one of the best films of the year.
It’s a work of electrifying energy and stirring passion. A college-set, music-laced character drama played like a thriller, it creates tension without violence and emotion without theatrics. The film functions at an astoundingly high level of cohesion at all times and I could not believe how skillfully it avoided the traps that are set for every film of this kind.
Just when it takes a turn that appears clichéd, Whiplash elevates the moment by taking it to a place I never thought it had the confidence to go to. Every surprise, every reveal- the director sticks with it and stretches it to the limits of intensity, transforming gasps into stunned silences of jaw-dropping awe. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the film knows exactly when to hold back. A relationship is established early on between Andrew, the protagonist, and a girl he awkwardly approaches. Here is where most films would collapse, placing too much emphasis on what ought to be a peripheral element. Instead, this aspect is kept very brief. There’s a sweetness and honesty to how it begins to develop and it’s used primarily to further define Andrew’s character, gently expanding into more sensitive territory. But Andrew fears that he can’t afford to be sensitive, so the relationship is jettisoned, only to be reintroduced in an unexpected and economical way.
Nothing is forgotten in Whiplash. The big moments stick the landing and the small moments are made to count. Andrew’s father is a recurring character in the film. Not too many lines, not too many scenes, but I remember him so vividly because of the integral role he played in developing Andrew’s character, creating a constant sense of support and a second outsider lens through which the audience could view the student’s predicament. He’s a tool for the director, but a full-bodied character as well. Also well-realized is the character of Terrence Fletcher, the toxic teacher pushing Andrew to the edge. He’s a frightening entity and his backstory is suitably murky. However, while his actions are monstrous, Chazelle never makes the mistake of writing him off as a monster. Manipulations are made, vulgarities are spewed and barely anyone gets away without feeling the sting of his drill sergeant-like insults, but a handful of subtle moments provide a glimpse of what the man is really made of.
I can only praise the direction and script for so long before I must turn to the actors that made that pathos real. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons…what a tremendous pair of performances. The entire cast delivers fine work but these are the two players our eyes are drawn to. Teller is incrementally transformative in tiny ways while Simmons portrays a steadfast devil with deceptive ticks and terrifyingly real fury. I felt such disdain for the latter, but also a fascination and this is largely thanks to Simmons’ dynamic turn. For Teller, I had nothing but empathy. In his escalating obsession and dogged determination in the face of crippling mental abuse, I saw elements of myself. Granted, it’s a more extreme version of myself, but Teller managed to establish more than enough of a beating heart in a character that needed to garner that identification with the audience in order to work.
Perfectly accenting the performances, characters and story are the exquisite technical aspects of Whiplash. The cinematography is beautifully varied, capturing the mood of each scene with a full bag of tricks regarding framing and camera movement. Zooms, tracking shots, high angles, low angles, shallow focus, deep focus, slow motion photography and even a series of whip pans expertly placed at a key moment within the film’s climax…all the techniques of visual storytelling are on display. Lighting and the intelligent use of color palette plays a big part in this. An assortment of dim oranges and yellows are employed to boost scenes of intensity, while relief-giving greys and cool blues are sparingly used. The camerawork is bolstered by editing that relaxes when the story requires it to, but also explodes with jazzy enthusiasm in the musical sequences. It impresses on multiple levels, for despite all that chaos, the editing shockingly retains the precision and detail of something like a Fincher film (and that’s no easy feat!).
In the end, it all comes back to the theme. Transcendence…by any means necessary. Is the torture worth it? Is Fletcher right? Do we become a slave to our passions for long enough to see ourselves eventually become the master or do we kill them off early and allow the ghosts of unrealized success to haunt us for the rest of our lives? Whiplash seems to endorse the former, at least to a degree. There are extremes to contend with, but its message is ultimately of an inspirational nature. Those who achieve less are not necessarily patronized as “losers,” but the audacity and endurance to reach exceptional status is championed, and rightly so. That being said, it’s only fair that I follow the film’s example and praise Whiplash for the exceptional achievement that it is. Take a bow, Chazelle, this one’s a winner.
5 out of 5 stars