Sep 30, 2014
Whiplash: NYFF 14
Whiplash, impressively written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is a stunner. A thrilling, exquisitely crafted ride that gives one hope about the future of American film. The twist is, it is a rather conventional story. It may remind you of Rocky, or of Full Metal Jacket, or Black Swan or even of Bambi (the hero has no mommy, again). But the difference is in the milieu: Whiplash is the story of young Andrew Neyman (a spectacular Miles Teller), an ambitious student at a renowned music academy in New York. He plays jazz drums. Andrew meets his match in the sadistic professor Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, in the role of a lifetime.
The plot uses some well worn tropes: the girlfriend that competes with jazz for Andrew's attention, the absent mother, the music competition; story turns you know like the back of your hand, but Chazelle manages to make them look fresh by unleashing truly surprising twists that keep you on the edge of your seat. Chazelle reimagines and invigorates yet another story of an obsessive hero struggling to make himself heard, through jazz. Whiplash is a tight composition of a film that works with a fantastic score by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, plus standards like Caravan by Duke Ellington and the title song by Hank Levy. Apparently, Chazelle storyboarded the film to the music score, which explains why Whiplash is a thrillingly musical film, and since the music is big band jazz, it has major swing.
The craftsmanship on every aspect of this movie is of the highest caliber: the music editing, the visual editing, the cinematography, and the very sharp writing and directing from Chazelle. Which brings me to the actors. As Andrew, Miles Teller offers an almost silent performance, but you can detect every single shift of feeling that crosses his mind. He does quiet intensity well, and he is truthful and riveting. In terms of talent, I can't think of another young American actor today that reminds me of Sean Penn or even De Niro like Teller does.
He holds his own and then some against the formidable J.K. Simmons, letting it rip as Fletcher, a sadistic son of a bitch who abuses students with inspired humiliating rants and soul crushing torture. Fletcher is deeply wrong about his method, which is to force talent out by way of destruction (though, to his credit, it does get the students to practice). He is hateful, but Simmons somehow makes him likable: he inhabits his conviction fully and we can understand his flaw. It's not that he means well. It's not tough love. It's that he believes he has a calling to beat the next Charlie Parker out of someone, both for the love of jazz and for the hurt of being unable to reach those heights of genius himself.
Chazelle sustains the tension between the turning wheels of plot and the complexity of the characters. The outlandish flourishes he indulges in feel earned because the movie is one with the world it portrays; with the music its characters worship. Whiplash is an exhilarating movie. I hope it gets the accolades it deserves this award season.