Every so often you’re privileged to see a film that makes a claim for greatness right out of the gate. As the film progresses, dramatic tension comes not only from the narrative, but from wondering whether the filmmaker can maintain the quality of their work over the whole of the running time – can they, essentially, stick the landing? Thankfully with Whiplash, the second feature from Damien Chazelle, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
The film follows the fraught relationship between Andrew Nyman (Miles Teller), a young jazz drummer studying at a prestigious New York music conservatory, and Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the autocratic conductor of the school’s band. Andrew wants to be one of the greats. Fletcher demands more than greatness – he wants nothing less than total submission to his will and thinks nothing of verbally destroying his students in order to extract the perfect performances his ensemble requires. Andrew is game, but soon his dedication to his art and Fletcher’s gruelling, drill sergeant regime begins to take its toll on every other aspect of his life.
This is just electrifying filmmaking. Chazelle frames his narrative like a sports movie, making the mechanics of high end musicianship as gruelling and fascinating as, say, Oliver Stone’s depiction of the business of football in Any Given Sunday. Chazelle’s work is sharp and precise, perfectly mirroring the intricate and complex music at the heart of the story. Editor Tom Cross does a bravura job, leaning heavily on quick, rhythmic cuts, lending the music sequences the visceral immediacy of fight scenes. On a technical level, the film is masterful.
But Whiplash is an actors’ film above all, and both Teller and Simmons hand in career-best performances – quite impressive for Simmons when you consider his incredible body of work. His Fletcher is an enigmatic figure, brutal and abusive but motivated by a love of music and a desire for perfection that is beyond the normal. He states his thesis plainly – “There are no two words more harmful in the English language than ‘good job’” – and it’s hard to argue his point. Mediocrity is comfortable, and excellence has a price.
Of course, it can be a terrible price, but is it worth it? Andrew’s kindly, ineffectual father (Paul Reiser) doesn’t think so, but his own dreams of artistic success are long forgotten. The saturnine Fletcher at least has drive, and the allure of greatness is surely worth a few bloody hands, a few broken relationships, a few lonely nights… isn’t it?
There are few easy answers to the questions Whiplash raises but they are certainly worth asking. Whatever your own opinions are, there can be no doubt that, in making his film about the price of excellence, Damien Chazelle has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he himself has paid it. This is the film of the year.