There were some real contenders at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, including God’s Pocket, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Life After Beth, The Skeleton Twins, and many more. But ultimately the jury awarded the grand prize to Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash – a bit of an out-of-nowhere dark horse that opened the festival.
Expanded from a short of the same name that screened at the festival the year before, Whiplash stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, a jazz drummer enrolled in the best music conservatory in the country. Andrew is recruited by conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) to be an alternate in his prestigious “studio band.” Andrew quickly learns that Fletcher’s reputation as a perfectionist doesn’t begin to describe the abusive iceberg he has unwittingly collided with. What starts as a mentorship quickly becomes a war waged between two passionate men, and music is their weapon of choice.
The war metaphor isn’t exactly a subtle one, nor is it meant to be. Troops used to carry drums into war with them, for goodness sake. That steady rhythm will forever be associated with the march to battle. And while Simmons as Fletcher hurls insults (and sometimes objects) at Andrew, Andrew throws hard-hitting drum fills right back.
This is a real buddy movie, though the two main characters are far from friendly. Fletcher is basically the culmination of Simmons’s career, embodying both the menace of Schillinger from Oz and the aggressiveness of Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson. Teller, on the other hand, abandons what has become familiar to us. eschewing the casual swagger he utilizes in The Spectacular Now or That Awkward Moment, in favor of quiet determination and a healthy dose of social anxiety. That goes away whenever Andrew starts playing, and though I cannot speak to how much drumming Teller actually does in the film – he does a convincing job of pretending. And that’s what matters. There are other actors onscreen (including Paul Reiser as Andrew’s supportive father), but Whiplash is all about these two men.
Well, it’s also about the music, and Chazelle deploys said tones with as much ferocity as the characters he has created. Music has such an innate power to evoke emotion that it is almost unfair to give Chazelle as much credit as I am here, but his guidance and the work of composer John Hurwitz gives the movie it’s dynamism. Just as the drum beat gives a song its tempo, Andrew’s drumming similarly drives Whiplash forward, to the point where it almost feels out of control at times. But Chazelle shows that he always has the power to reign that rhythm in if necessary.
Chazelle’s work with cinematographer Sharone Meir is almost as impressive as the music itself. Much of the movie is composed of intimate, impeccably lit close ups of Andrew and Fletcher. The actors convey so much through their expression, and Meir’s camera catches all of it. But this stylistic choice is also wisely broken up from time to time by more artistic shots, like one of Andrew’s bloody hand plunging into a pitcher full of ice water. As the clear water becomes red, we get a sense of how Andrew’s interest in anything outside of music is also being clouded.
That’s the question of this movie. In Fletcher’s mad quest to discover a truly great talent, is he creating monsters from the collateral damage? Does he even care. And if Andrew manages to survive the experience, and come out the other end, will he still be the guy the audience wants to succeed? Or will he become Fletcher? Whiplash doesn’t concretely answer any of these questions, but it makes you think about them. At least once the credits start rolling and you can finally unclench your entire body. Whiplash is more tense than most horror movies – Chazelle’s film may have deserved to win Sundance on that fact alone.