With the movie industry being so varied these days in terms of quality, and by extension, style it can often be difficult to justify calling a film a ‘modern classic’, but that’s exactly what I’d call Oscar winning movie Whiplash (2014). Considering the films director and writer Damien Chazelle is already being heralded for his most recent release La La Land, of which I am currently desperate to see, I’m a little late to the party. But 2.5 years after it’s release Whiplash has me exhausted, infuriated and conflicted in all kinds of wonderful ways.
Let me try and give you a brief overview without revealing too many spoilers if, like me, you have also waited until now to watch it. Whiplash is, in the simplest of explanations, a film about music, of jazz and determination, of dreams and talent and of questionable methods of teaching. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a relatively lonely music student at Shaffer Conservatory and dreams of being “one of the greats”. He spends his days practising drums and listening to Buddy Rich and before long is discovered by teacher Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons). Fletcher invites him to join the schools studio band and thus begins a film of extremity and intensity as the twos relationships is painful and tumultuous. Their mutual relationship with music, however, remains constantly unwavering.
In a film made up of brilliance it is hard to select just one thing to commend, but I feel like I cannot speak of this movie without first discussing it’s imposing and breathtaking performances. Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman isn’t so much likeable, in fact I would go so far as to say the only likeable character is Nicole and she is barely there. Yet had Andrew been more likeable the film and the events that take place may have been harder to accept and to watch. But bridging the gap between likeability and kid-we-kinda-respect-because-he’s-got-drive is a difficult task. As if the sweat and tears dripping from his face are as real as our exhaustion he convinces us of this hopeful prodigy. We do not necessarily like him, but we respect him, and as we watch his constant resolution to become ‘great’ we want him to succeed. Everything about his performance makes us want him to succeed, makes us want to breathe that familiar sigh of relief at the end that we have been waiting to release.
J K Simmons has never terrified me more than in this film. Terrifying, perhaps, because his continual vexation and rage is so grounded in natural human behaviour and mannerisms that it is so real. It is real, and that is scary, because he shows these instances of conflict like they do not in any way tire him to be so vehemently outraged. Whats more is Simmons manages to cross the emotional border between calm Terence and hostile Terence that we, again, do not know whether to like him, respect him or outright despise everything about him.
The tone of the film is swift and at times harsh which again lends itself as a mirror to the characters’ personalities. Also to the ever-growing enervation that the experience of watching Whiplash affords its audience, an enervation that is nonetheless welcome. This tone follows through to all aspects of the film, the writing, the cinematography, the directing, the acting, the music. While it seems obvious that the tone should match all aspects it is rare that a film manages to do so smoothly and so accurately as whiplash manages to.
The last thing I would like to mention, before I enter the terrible reviewing territory of rambling about irrelevant matters, is the writing. Oh boy does the writing hit the nerves in the most perfect way possible. The exhaustion I’ve mentioned several times that comes from this film comes from the way the words are poisonously spat out of the mouth’s of their owners. Chazelle has very carefully chosen words for each character to say that he knows will last. We will move on from a destructive scene, and still remember every little insult or casually hurtful remark. It lingers like a nasty smell and builds a tension and an irrevocable anger in us that means we finish the film and cannot forget it. Even in scenes that do not feel as though they should be so memorably hurtful, there are writing choices that are just impeccable.
Whiplash is a film that is, as I professed at the start, a ‘modern classic’. It has all the elements of many of the impressive dramas of the 90s but with a contemporary spin and desire for experimentation. It has romance, it has sadness, it has an expert soundtrack, and moments that will effect you in them ost physical way possible. There are undeniable moments that may spark debate as to their motivations, and toward what exactly the ending (which I will not give away) may be trying to say about the methods mentioned. Yet that debate alone makes it even more delectably spectacular.
It’s currently on Netflix, so forget your TV show binging and take a moment to watch Whiplash and see if you agree.