A highly enjoyable and invigorating film which doesn't always manage to hide its director's lack of experience.
Whiplash (Cannes Review)
Like the two previous Sundance hits, Whiplash goes through familiar emotional motions which prevent it from being the kind of sensation the Sundance buzz might make you think it is. But, there are two important ways it distances itself from Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Fruitvale Station. Firstly, it’s stylized enough to not have an air of forced importance in each shaky frame or gritty filter. Secondly, it’s very funny and comedy goes a long way. There was some commotion in Sundance when Buzzfeed’s Amanda Willmore stirred the gender pot and called the film out on its representation of women, and I can’t deny the truth in that. This is a boy’s film through and through, where mothers desert their children, girlfriends have no ambition, and girls have no place in famed musical courses. Leaving that major setback aside, for now, the film still uses a musical passion rarely given attention to and makes a highly enjoyable and invigorating film built around determination and pushed limits.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) wants to be remembered as one of the greatest drummers to have lived and the film wastes no time in throwing you right into the thick of it. He is practicing a special double-tap technique with drums when one of Shaffer Conservatory of Music’s most feared and respected instructors, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), walks in to listen, observe, and see if Neyman would fit in his band. It’s quickly established that Fletcher’s version of listening and observing is criticizing and deriding thanks to an exceedingly high standard. However, Neyman’s determination and skill impresses Fletcher enough to give the 19-year old a shot, in preparation for an upcoming competition. Andrew’s strained relationship with his father (Paul Reiser), his efforts to have a relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and the dismissive way we find out that his mother deserted the family, are contextualized around his passion for being a drummer. Whiplash is about the lines dividing passion and obsession, the willingness of the spirit to never give up, and a highly flawed teaching principle.
There’s much to admire in Whiplash, and if audience reaction is used as measurement of a film’s success you’d think Whiplash was the greatest film out of Cannes, not just the Director’s Fortnight where the year’s Sundance hit usually lands. You’d have to be made of stone to not be swept up by the film’s crescendo, an ending designed to put audiences into a frenzy. It’s only when hindsight kicks in that you realize some of the film’s messages get lost in the pandemonium of emotion. Fletcher is the vulgar, drill-seargent, hard-ass you love to hate, whose character shades do little to cover up deeply flawed principles, and yet, once you think the film acknowledges them it turns around and drops them like a bad habit. Luckily, we have character actor J.K. Simmons (channeling cinema’s toughest drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket) in a role that was made for his sharp wit (all he’s gotta do is close a door to make you laugh) and knack of going from intense to kind with a seamless flick of the switch. This is the closest he’ll ever get to Best Support Actor award consideration. But if you consider him, then Teller should get mention as well. He’s at his best when he’s behind the drum set and playing as if possessed by the ghost of Buddy Rich. Compared to his turn in the great The Spectacular Now, this performance shows that he’s growing and if he continues like this he’s going to be major.
The most admirable thing to take away from Whiplash is the balance of comedy and drama, and supported by two strong performances and award worthy editing from Tom Cross, is the young director at the helm; Damien Chazelle. He should be flooded with offers right about now, so don’t be surprised to hear how he’s going to be directing some kind of Spider-Man VS Godzilla spin-off, because at 28 years of age, Chazelle is by far the biggest star of the film. With an original screenplay brimming with quotable lines and memorable scenes (the “out of tune” episode is one of many uproarious highlights) and assured direction of a young man’s dissent into a dangerously taxing obsession, while effectively portraying the effects of psychological harassment, Chazelle will be one of the year’s biggest talking points (not unsimilar to Benh Zeitlin, but in my opinion, more deserved). However, we come back to the film’s flaws which the age, experience, and gender of the director make all the more understandable. Whiplash is immensely enjoyable to watch and listen to (the music is fantastic, as it must be) but the predictable emotional pushes and pulls, and the rather immature and dismissive representation of women in the film highlight the director’s inexperience. Nonetheless, he’s absolutely one to watch and for fans of J.K. Simmons, you’ve got your favorite movie in Whiplash.