"There are no two words in the english language more harmful than 'good job'."
‘I want drumming about Spider-Man’. Sorry I had to, but putting J.J.J (John Jonah Jameson) aside, J.K Simmons plays one of the most intense, frightening and thrilling roles, matched to a film with the same aspects, in recent history. And it’s about Jazz music, that traditional thriller base mark.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer who is studying at a prestigious music school, and he wants to be the best. To achieve this he will have to impress the debatably psychotic, and even more debatably brilliant, conductor Fletcher.
It’s is startling to think that of all the tense spy thrillers, hostage negotiations and terrorist plots of recent years, a movie about drumming would become the most intense one of them all. As the tension builds and builds you really begin to feel for young Andrew, you almost believe, as he surely does, that unless he masters the drums his life will be over, full stop, nothing else and no more options left. It’s almost as if his very existence depends on it.
J.K Simmons’ Fletcher is rather reminiscent of the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The intensity and passion behind every single line and interaction is astonishing. The anger and need to improve are relished not just once but repeatedly, and in every aspect. Even when the emotions of the character begin to change he retains that stormy core that pushes and pushes continuously.
Nearly everyone has praised Simmons and though he deserves it, save some for Mr Miles Teller please. He perfects the victim who must either take it and make it or stand up and lose it all (I couldn’t rhyme that). He puts everything he has into this role, going from promising student, scarred professional and then…(spoiler). Teller actually plays a larger part in raising such huge tension from such a relatively small practice.
Their combination is also a work of brilliance. As their relationship evolves and changes the abuse that Fletcher inflicts becomes psychological. It reaches new, unprecedented levels that are brought to life fantastically by the performances. The film also asks vital questions over how far you should push yourself. Andrew drums because he loves it, but to succeed and do it forever he needs to be good at it. So he needs to practice with such brutal training methods that surely it defeats the point of following that path anyway, it becomes just as daunting and pressurising as manual labour.
My last review was Foxcatcher and I criticised it for misplacing its protagonist, and Whiplash had the potential to do the same thing. But it didn’t, it kept the focus of the film on its emotional attachment and although the more fascinating character was present almost constantly, the emotional centre was Andrew.
My one and only criticism, and it’s a small one, is that when Andrew reaches breaking point it happens in a very eventful way. In an attempt not to spoil it but until this point the anger and tension had been built up through small actions. At this point the story merges on melodramatic when it doesn’t seem necessary. Given Simmons’ attitude to his point you’d think that only one of the events needed to happen to make Andrew snap, but instead they all happen and they make it seem slightly staged. But like I said, this is one complaint and it only effects those single ten minutes of the film, which are still very good. The following scene when Andrew finally confronts his tormenter makes it worth it.
Whiplash also doesn’t rely too much on the actors either. Simmons and Teller add to the drama and then some but the directorial techniques used by Damien Chazelle still work to beautiful effect. He turns a film about the smooth music into a heart-stopping and emotional thriller.
On paper this film sounds like a more serious and boring version of the Karate Kid. On the screen it’s an entirely different and unique creation. Drumroll please.