Whiplash (2014) – Damien Chazelle

whiplash movie poster

The desire to be great at whatever it is we feel we’re built to do is something that is probably common to no insignificant portion of the population. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like a deeply relatable part of the human condition. Does anyone want to be forgettable? Unlikely. But how many of us are actually willing to do everything in our power to really become unforgettable? Whiplash is an uncompromising study of what costs must be paid and what sacrifices must be made to be someone the world will remember.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a talented young drummer, beginning his education at the nationally renowned Shaffer Conservatory. He certainly seems to have the potential to achieve his goal of becoming a drumming legend but he’s still raw, unmolded clay. Band conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) fancies himself a sculptor… and isn’t afraid to use every cold, cruel tool at his disposal to break down, remake and refine his students until they meet his exacting standards.

Whiplash drew me in from its first, slow dolly shot in as we witnessed Andrew go to work on a drum set and didn’t let go until a blistering performance led us right into the credits. I’m no fan of jazz (although I suppose on some level I understand its appeal) but each and every performance was utterly captivating (and thankfully so).

J.K. Simmons has scared me ever since I first saw him as J. Jonah Jameson in Spiderman and nothing in his performance here changes that. Simmons is a compelling, terrifying force as Terence Fletcher but, while he’s not someone you’d ever want to cross, he carefully avoids descending into caricature or clichéd villainy. As we see and learn more about him, Fletcher reveals himself to be a deeply conflicted and complicated personality. While admittedly I still have yet to see a couple of the nominated performances (so take this with a grain of salt), I think Simmons winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor would be more than well-deserved.

Surprisingly (to me at least), the person who was able to come close to matching Simmons was Miles Teller. I’d only seen him in a couple of things before Whiplash (The Spectacular Now and Divergent) and I hadn’t really been a fan, despite the effusive praise I’d heard people heaping on him. Well, I’m seeing it now. His quiet, but intensely driven loner was a great contrast to the explosive horror that was Simmons’s Fletcher. But he was also able to expertly transition his character into the practice-crazed, greatness-obsessed fiend that was so blinded by his relentless pursuit of his goal that he was willing to challenge the dominant figure that was Fletcher. (Sidenote: Teller’s drum playing seemed pretty impressive to me… does he actually play or did he just learn what he had to for the role?)

These two characters complemented each other, demonstrating a strange and disturbing symbiotic relationship. Fletcher existed only to find and “nurture” in the best way he knew the special (but fledgling) talent that Andrew was. And without Fletcher’s overwhelming pressure and unorthodox motivational techniques, Andrew may never have been able to imagine coming close to achieving his formidable goal. These two animals needed each other to fulfill what seemed to be their singular purposes. It was beautiful… in a sickening kind of way.

Whiplash is a movie that would have easily made my top 10 (probably top 3) of 2014 had I seen it in the right calendar year. It’s a dark, smart and poignant examination of the special kind of crazy (from mentor and mentee both) that’s required to tease out true greatness from massive, untapped potential. I saw it a week ago and I can’t get it out of my mind (not that I’m particularly interested in doing so anyway). Parts of it can certainly seem extreme, but it’s a worthwhile challenge to try to understand what that minuscule population of geniuses endures to remain forever imprinted in our memories.


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