02nd Feb2015

‘Whiplash’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton, Suanne Spoke, Charlie Ian, Jayson Blair | Written and Directed by Damian Chazelle

whiplash-cast

I’m not going to tell you anything you haven’t already heard; Whiplash is great, even (perhaps especially) if you’re not particularly into jazz drumming. J.K. Simmons ought to win all the awards for his portrayal of the most magnetically monstrous educator in cinema, Miles Teller finally begins coming through on his ‘next big thing’ status (though Two Night Stand may well reset that bar) and writer-director Damian Chazelle gives us a heart-pumping, electrifyingly edited action movie about artistic perfection, singular misery and the ambition that drives many to both.

But like I said, you already know all that. It’s hard not to with so much buzz surrounding the film, but oddly for a movie at this level of hype there hasn’t been a whole lot of plot mentioned in the various gushing pieces that have graced our eyes and ears. The good thing about this is that it leaves me something to tell you that you don’t already know. The bad news? There isn’t a whole lot of plot to tell.

Whiplash opens with a sight that will become not only familiar but seared onto our eyes over the next 100 minutes: first year Shaffer student Andrew Neimann thrashing away at a practice kit on his own. He looks like he’s enjoying himself. It’s about the only time in the film (with arguably one exception) in which he looks satisfied with his performance. This is largely due to his introduction to Terence Fletcher, an infamous and revered conductor at the school who invites him to join his competition ensemble – after a couple of trials meant to test his mettle, of course. Neimann is elated with his success, but he’s about the only one; his cousins garner more praise for being third-string football players than he does for practically achieving a lifelong goal.

The filmmaking craft on show is key to accessing Andrew’s mindset, especially the cinematography. Most everything is filmed close up on short lenses with shallow focus so that often the lead is the only visible subject onscreen, and the extreme definition the camera affords the audience allows us to explore the landscape of Andrew’s face – an acne-scarred, puffy and sweaty visage that’s not unusual for an average young man just past his teens, but something quite striking for those used to the caked-on makeup of Hollywood protagonists. We’re given a literally warts-and-all perspective of Andrew, feeling shocked indignance when he’s abused by Fletcher for “not quite” getting his tempo, but also wincing at his distant, condescending relationships with both his father (a quietly sympathetic Paul Reiser) and girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), whom he’s an exquisite douchebag to in the film’s most facepalm-inducing scene.

Whiplash doesn’t have a whole lot of time for women on its surface, but I read a huge amount of desire for maternal approval and attention in Andrew’s relationship with Fletcher, due to the absence of the former’s mother. However misguided and damaging that attitude ends up being, you get the sense that both of them are getting something out of the relationship that no-one else can see – and that is only ever fully expressed in the bashing and bleeding and screaming that so defines most of the film’s highlights. Some moments are shocking, others excruciating and more still incredibly humorous, even in the face of such brutality and future therapy fodder.

In the end, it’s not clear whether or not Chazelle and the filmmakers have represented the experiences of Shaffer students and staff accurately (I would err on the side of ‘not’), but that doesn’t really matter. The two central performances completely sell the world they’re living in, and by the end of the film I almost forgot that any other world existed. It’s one I’m quite sure I’d never want to live in, but watching these two characters tear each other apart in it is as exhilarating as any rollercoaster. Whiplash is so my tempo.

Whiplash is out at cinemas now.

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