By Joe Strange
Starting its journey at the Sundance festival in 2013, Whiplash was originally a short film, and after taking home the Short Film Jury prize at the festival, and newcomer Damien Chazelle was able to get the funding to fulfil his original goal of making Whiplash into a feature piece, and now, not only has it won the Grand Jury prize at the 2014 Sundance, but it’s taken critics and audiences by storm, and is nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including best picture.
I honestly didn’t think that making a tension filled thriller about a young drummer joining a college jazz band would be possible, let alone think it would end up being one of the most engaging, emotional and original films I’ve seen in the past year, but Chazelle’s Whiplash is exactly that.
The film follows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller – Divergent), a talented 19 year old drummer, as he is drafted into the Shaffer Conservatory by Terence Fletcher, its cut-throat conductor, played by J.K Simmons (Spiderman, Juno).
Shaffer is, as we’re told by an insufferably proud Neiman, the best musical college in America, which makes Fletcher’s band the best in the country, and he expects nothing less from its members. But Fletcher’s methods aren’t what you’d call conventional.
Fletcher abhors the soft education approach and at one point claims that “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,”. He is ready to go to extremes to get the absolute best out of his students, resorting to both emotional and physical abuse to do so
And its from this that the film’s tension and drama comes from. Neiman is excellent as a student determined to, not only be great, but ‘one of the greats’. His iron willed stubbornness comes across impeccably, especially in the rigorous practice sessions and the visceral, quick cuts that show his injuries and their treatment. For all the character’s arrogance and self obsession, his frustration is real, clear and heartbreaking. You want so desperately for Teller’s character to succeed, not only against his tyrannical teacher but those who, in his eyes, are intent on shooting his dream down, whether that be his family, or his short lived relationship with Melissa Benoist’s Nicole.
But while Neiman is a great leading man, the film is absolutely dominated by the powerhouse that is J.K Simmons’ Fletcher. Stony faced and rarely seen in anything other than a plain black T-shirt, Simmons’ demands attention and exudes dominance, from the crossing of his arms to the curtness of his conduction, his muscles seem to constantly be containing the rage that could explode at any moment (and does). Everything the character does has a subtext of fury, of threat, even his encouragements seem to hold a promise of destruction if Neiman, or the band, fails. At Simmons’ hands simple phrases like ‘not my tempo’ go from almost pleasant pointers to the most terrifying phrase you’d ever wish to hear.
What makes the interactions between the characters so explosive is both these characters believe that what they’re doing is absolutely right, that there’s no questioning their actions or their consequences. This leads to a conclusion that is so unbelievably tense, so incredibly epic and so well earned that it should be counted in the top finales of cinema, and is truly a marvel.
Despite a slightly melodramatic second act, where one particular parallel is handled slightly heavily, this film is stellar from start to finish; tense, dramatic and incredibly compelling. Whiplash is an excellently handled character driven must see, and with a budget way under $4 million, it proves that you really don’t need a huge budget to make a huge impact.