A film review by Craig J. Koban December 14, 2014


Rank: #3


2014, R, 106 mins.


Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman  /  J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher  /  Paul Reiser as Jim  /  Melissa Benoist as Nicole  /  Austin Stowell as Ryan

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle

WHIPLASH, at face value, is about jazz music, but deep at its core it’s more about fanatical obsession and a battle of egos and wills between two artists constantly vying for supremacy.  

There’s the student that’s willing to go to any extreme to achieve musical excellence, but then there’s his mentor/instructor that’s equally willing to painfully make a mockery of his protégé at every waking moment.  Director Damien Chazelle, in his sophomore directorial effort, crafts WHIPLASH as an electrifying and frequently shocking expose on unbridled artistic ambition left fully unchecked and the toxically destructive relationship between teacher and pupil.  The fact that it builds more nerve-jangling suspense than many recent thrillers is to its credit. 

I’ve seen so many countless iterations of the age-old teacher/pupil/education genre, which often wallows in overt sentimentality and unavoidably becomes something shamelessly saccharine.  WHIPLASH has none of that going for it and instead emerges as a daring and risk-taking cliché-busting original.  In this film the whole process by which the instructor imparts his wisdom on his prized pupil becomes a verbally – and frequently physically – abusive classroom battlefield.  Chazelle has no time to inject false moments of reconciliation between his characters, nor does he take great pains to make viewers feel “good” about the film’s central relationship.  No, unlike just about every other similar genre film out there, WHIPLASH takes macabre relish in making the audience feel as squirm-inducingly ill-at-ease as possible, which ultimately gives the film so many complex layers of intrigue. 

The film is also populated by two of the most completely committed and fearless performances of 2014 by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons playing the aforementioned student/teacher respectively.   Teller plays Andrew Newman, a shy, introverted, but deeply ambitious 19-year-old student at Shaffer Conservatory, one of the most prestigious musical universities in the country.  He dreams one day of becoming the next great jazz drummer, but has always had difficulty gaining the attention of his peers and the school facility alike.  It’s clear that he has the drive and talent, but needs expert instruction to get to the next level.  He practices day and night to sharpen and hone his skills, and even though he gets ample support from his father (a nicely restrained Paul Reiser), he grows more dejected and dissatisfied by the day. 



One fateful day his drumming catches the attention of Mr. Fletcher (Simmons), the most respected instructor at Shaffer that is looked upon by students with a level of awe, wonder, and intimidation that has made him an icon at the school.  Initially, Fletcher casually dismisses Andrew, but this, alas, is just part of his larger teaching “technique” that, shall we say, shames students into greatness.  Fletcher does admit Andrew into his class, and even though the teacher, at first, appears congenial and fatherly with Andrew, it only takes a mere matter of minutes before he’s literally throwing classroom chairs at his head and hurling out f-bomb riddled diatribes as to his lack of talent in front of the rest of the students.  This is just the beginning of the type of excruciatingly hostile mind games that Fletcher plays on poor Andrew (and some of the other students as well), to the point where the once meager minded lad begins to take his musical training from a place of deep passion and into one of sweat and blood soaked fanaticism.  He reaches a point where he’ll do anything – anything – to gain the acceptance of his monstrously demanding teacher. 

It could be said that WHIPLASH is perhaps a social commentary on the whole notion on the psychological prices that people pay while desperately trying to achieve success and greatness in a world beset by antagonistic and cutthroat obstacles.  There’s a sad element of tragedy here in the sense that Andrew’s zealot-like emphasis on attaining musical supremacy supersedes his actual love of jazz itself.  There’s a subplot in the film that hammers this notion home with a troubling immediacy.  Andrew has become smitten with a local college girl that works at a movie theater that he frequents.  He has a couple of awkward dates with her, but their relationship does manage to evolve.  Now, you’d think that this romance would be a central element in the film as a place of soothing emotional support, but Chazelle subverts our expectations.  In a callous scene, Andrew – at the height of his training focus – decides to end his relationship with her because, in his mind, she would be an unnecessary distraction in his academic drives.  He simply has no time for other social interactions.   

Miles Teller, I’ve often said, is one of the most naturally talented young actors working today when compelled to be (see his Oscar nomination worthy turns in RABBIT HOLE and THE SPECTACULAR NOW) and he arguably gives one of his most breathlessly exhilarating performances of his career as Andrew.  There’s rarely a moment in the film when you doubt that Teller is doing those vigorous and physically arduous jazz drum solos (the actor has been a drummer since the age of 15), but more importantly he captures the essence of lost innocence in Andrew given way to a young man employing self-destructive and volatile means of becoming better in his craft.  He’s complimented by Simmons' volcanic turn as Fletcher, who could have become such a one-note and simplistically rendered villain in any other actor’s hand.  Fortunately, Simmons is flawless in portraying a more sinister side of pure evil: a man that thinks he’s righteous and good and doing what’s required to achieve his ultimate end game.  I’ve seen drill sergeants in movies that were more emotionally inviting than Simmons' Fletcher: he’s simply one of the most frightening entities I’ve seen in any film in a long time.  

Thankfully, Chazelle’s tight, stylish, and confident direction brings the best of his actors without drawing too much needless attention to itself.  He knows how to get into the headspaces of his performers in smaller, more intimate scenes, but when the film calls for sequences that emphasis both the grace and chaotic physical tortures that Andrew goes through in his drum solos, the rhythmic editing and cross-cutting of these moments (by the virtuoso editor Tom Cross) gives WHIPLASH an intoxicating and immersive sense of sonic envelopment.  No more is this clear in the film’s final sections, which sort of adheres to and then methodically deconstructs the whole overused convention of a final climatic battle between protagonist and antagonist.  The final 15 minutes of WHIPLASH are arguably the most gripping final 15 minutes of any film that I’ve seen in recent memory.  By this point, Chazelle – much like Fletcher has with Andrew – has viewers insatiably hooked.   

There is a moment that comes before this humdinger of a climax when you think that Chazelle has potentially found a manner of reconciliation between his main characters, but then he abruptly pulls the dramatic rug from under out feet and leaves us guessing again as to what’s coming next.  Again, it’s WHIPLASH’s audacious manner of absconding away from genre conceits that makes it so resourcefully innovative.  Most genre films like it build to a final crescendo where student and teacher achieve a rousing moment of triumph together.  WHIPLASH does this…and it doesn’t.  I can see how many will perceive the film’s conclusion as a personal victory for Andrew…but is it?  It’s more like he’s gone deep into the heart of darkness with no hope for his soul in sight.  The once kind and reserved kid that adored music is gone and has been replaced by a haunted and compulsive being; it's so heartbreakingly unpleasant.  And this is precisely what makes WHIPLASH so diabolically spellbinding at every turn. 

  H O M E