Sundance 2014 Review: Whiplash
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is a dangerous motion picture, a frightening examination of artistic drive that raises miserable questions and provides a few miserable answers. But whether you interpret the film as a tragedy or a victory for Andrew Neyman, the young drummer played by Miles Teller, you are probably wrong. It would seem instead to be both: a triumphant coming of age tale, and an inverse, perverse, modern Amadeus in which outward hostility – strike that, abuse – towards an artist is deemed necessary to inspire their greatness.
That’s a terrifying message, and arguably a potential justification for the base cruelty of bad teachers anywhere. This story of a young musician with unrealized talent beaten emotionally and physically into mania on the off chance that he becomes the next Charlie Parker is all manners of intense. Suspense is practically dripping off the movie’s brow over whether poor, lovable Miles Teller will succumb to anxiety, emotional detachment, and what most would consider misery just to bang his drums in perfect time. If he succeeds, he could be a legend. If he fails, he could quite possibly kill himself in one of many ways. In either case, Whiplash dares to suggest that perhaps his teacher Terrence Fletcher, played by a truly superlative J.K. Simmons, would have been right all along. A disconcerting thought.
Sensitivity does exist in this Whiplash universe – it reads in the beleaguered eyes of the protagonist’s fearful father, played by Paul Reiser, and perhaps just once in a slightly different sort of outburst from Fletcher – but the film resorts in the end to a strange variation on the typical underdog three-act structure. Glory is eventually offered, and if achieved, perhaps this “hero” will have been better off for weathering all the suffering that came before it. But what of the teacher’s other victims?
All great villains think they’re heroes. Whiplash wonders if maybe one true “hero” has decided to play the villain to achieve an heroic end. In geek terms, Fletcher may indeed be the Reverse Flash: drowning the hero in tragedy for no better reason than to push the beneficiary of that abuse to greater victory. In a lesser movie, the hero would push back against that form of tyranny and become better for it, shaming the antagonist into admitting they were wrong all their lives. But then, the hero wouldn’t have overcome anything without adversity, could they? Who is the “real” hero?
J.K Simmons embodies his role like perhaps no other actor could, for few actors have a greater capacity for demonstrating such empathy and cruelty at turns, and fewer still may be able to conduct them both on-screen at the same time without resorting to weepy excuses for their meanness or a cynical disavowal of their humanity. As Fletcher, Simmons emerges as an impressively complex villain, thanks in large part to a movie that doesn’t decide for the longest time – and perhaps never even does – whether he’s actually the bad guy.
But where Whiplash gets scary – which goes hand-in-hand this time with fascinating – is when Chavelle’s film allows the possibility that Fletcher is a villain, but is still right about everything anyway. That perhaps ends do justify means, and that the truly exceptional not only exist but may even deserve to live more than those around them. That’s a shocking notion, one that seems like at least one of several valid, wildly diverse potential thematic takeaways from a movie that otherwise bears close similarities to mentor-student motion pictures past, albeit twisted up.
I’m not sure Whiplash is a great film, but it deals in greatness with such detail, and with such unusual, impeccable performances, that the very fact that it doesn’t feel like bullshit is enough to amaze. It dares to challenge with unconventional ideas and yet still somehow please at just the right times, forcing the viewer to decide for themselves in the end not what the film is really about – since Chazelle seems willing to allow for multiple interpretations – but instead what is actually important when one gauges the impact of their own lives: the ends, the means, or the collateral damage.