Writer/Director Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash is a sports film that moves and writhes like a suspenseful thriller, only the sport in question is competitive jazz band. The “player” is Miles Teller, continuing his streak of usurping roles that feel tailor made for Shia Lebeouf as Andrew, an ambitious drummer who wants nothing more than to be the best. His “coach” is a career best J.K. Simmons as Fletcher, an abusive, beguiling music teacher who believes that the two worst words in the English language are “good job.” Paul Reiser has a small role as Andrew’s father, a loving but benign patriarch, a failed writer, and a single dad whose wife ran out on him years ago.
That absence, the specter of Andrew’s long gone mother, haunts Whiplash, at times a frustratingly masculine film that seems to present a tale of two dads, kind of a weird take on the principle triangle from Robert DeNiro’s A Bronx Tale. Andrew’s real father, who loves him and cares for him but, sapped of a true artistic drive after not making it as a novelist, casually undercuts his son’s dreams, treating his drumming as a passing fancy, a hobby he’ll eventually see as naive folly, perhaps settling down to be something sensible. (Perhaps a teacher like his dad.) He feeds, clothes and encourages Andrew, but nothing he does truly pushes his son to be better than he is. All Fletcher does is push. And scream. And throw cymbals. And manipulate. And degrade.
Fletcher also didn’t have what it takes to be great in his chosen field but unlike Andrew’s dad, he chose to devote his life to fostering greatness in others. He’s definitely the villain of this piece, if a movie about competitive jazz can in fact have a villain, but he’s not a mustache twirler. Fletcher drinks every last drop of his own Kool-Aid, repeatedly regurgitating the same misinterpreted Charlie Parker origin story he uses as airtight justification for abusing and destroying the hearts and minds of his students. His presence on screen is peculiar in its malevolence, his figure consistently framed and lit like the monster in a fairy tale, where Andrew’s father is always shot on even or off kilter footing with his son, Fletcher appears from shadows, or bursts into a room with a pointed heft. Andrew, caught in the middle of these two paternal symbols, just wants to be great. He’s insular, obsessed, and isolated; the perfect prey for someone like Fletcher.
While there’s definitely a predatory element to their relationship that eventually gives way to a dangerous game of one-upsmanship (not unlike that of Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in the film Sleuth), it’s hard to deny that Andrew needs to buy some of what Fletcher is selling. There’s a sense of symbiosis. Both men revere great art above all else and are willing to sacrifice anything to reach that peak. The difference is that Fletcher is willing to sacrifice every student he crushes just to find one Charlie Parker, and Andrew is willing to sacrifice himself to be that one.
Whether or not that particular journey is worth the debatable destination is the open ended question of Whiplash. Newcomer Chazelle has made a sharp, engrossing picture that is one of the leanest, meanest films I’ve seen in a long time. In today’s day and age of three hour epics trying like hell to compete with years long TV series and failing miserably, it’s refreshing to see a film that suits the medium and tells its story as efficiently as possible. I read the script for this film that was floating around online and was insanely impressed by how much tighter the film was than on the page. Indie films so rarely have the discipline to cut and tweak to that degree but in Whiplash, no frame is wasted.
There’s a percussive precision to the film’s editing patterns that is used to get a lot across. Sharp, well-written dialogue permeates throughout the script, but the best bits of storytelling are purely visual. We don’t have to be overtly told that the Nassau Band we see Andrew with in the film’s opening act is less prestigious than Fletcher’s Studio Band. We clearly see the two rehearsal spaces contrasted, both in shot size (Nassau, loose and languid medium shots, hastily cut together while Studio is tightly coiled and meticulously constructed, in terms of montage) and lighting choices (Nassau is blue, gray, and bland where Studio is orange, vibrant and alive, scarily so). By the time we get to the more professional band setting of the film’s final third, these skilled musicians are framed with an impeccable certainty that is as intimidating as it is impressive. The audience is never expected to understand the intricacies of jazz music or the effort it takes to play it. The images do that work for them, implying context without beating you over the head with needless ephemera.
Andrew’s character arc from naive, hopeful rookie to hollowed out, damaged perfectionist borrows visually a little from the handheld aesthetic Darren Aronofsky used when following two of his craft-obsessed protagonists around, The Wrestler‘s Randy Robinson and Black Swan‘s Nina Sayers. First, as Andrew enters Fletcher’s world, there’s a tentative smoothness to the moving camera, but as Andrew begins to loose his footing, we progress to a shaky handheld aesthetic that feels appropriate rather than distracting. Watching Miles Teller’s face devolve into more and more of a broken neutral mask as his calloused, bloody drumming hands begin to fail him says just as much as his progressively terse dialogue. The more he focuses on practice making perfect, the less time and consideration he has for his family or his love interest (Melissa Benoist, sadly, the only significant speaking role for a woman in this film).
J.K. Simmons is pretty much a lock for Best Supporting Actor this year, based on his stellar work in the film. Teller is more than up to the task of matching wits with him, but Simmons dominates. I think any other actor might have taken this role in another direction, making Fletcher a ceaselessly shrill and torturous maniac, but in Simmons’ capable hands, he’s a storm constantly brewing. The moments you’ve seen in the trailer of him yelling and throwing things are made more frightening by the moments of quiet, the private scenes he Fletcher shares with Andrew where the trap is really set. During Andrew’s first day with Studio Band, Fletcher pulls him aside and they share an intimate, friendly conversation about being there for the music and just to have fun, their two faces dominating the wide frame. It puts Andrew at ease, making him feel safe. He often seems to think that Fletcher puts on a big show of being a monster, but that there’s something unique between them, and perhaps there is. The shift in the next scene, with those faces so close together on the screen, this time with Fletcher hurling epithets and twisting personal details gained in confidence from his pliable student, hurts so much more because of the trust implicit in the student/teacher relationship.
Whether or not Fletcher’s antics are necessary is left to the viewer to decide. The game of cat and mouse between Fletcher and Andrew reaches a satisfying crescendo. Whiplash is a thrilling nailbiter that ruminates on the cost of great art, nature vs nurture and the sacrifices one makes for one’s craft, and it succeeds where so many similar films fail by adhering to a simplicity in its storytelling methods that more Sundance fare would do well to emulate.
It’s also got a killer soundtrack.
Whiplash is out now in theaters, currently playing in limited release.