Whiplash will not make it into my top ten films of 2014. But that’s only because, for me, 2014 has been by far the greatest year in the history of film.
Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is an incredibly intense single-minded film about a young man’s desire to be a great musician (a drummer) and the teacher who is willing to stop at nothing to help fulfill that young man’s desire (and his own). That’s it. That’s the entire plot, because, like Locke, Whiplash’s screenplay is as tight and focused as they come. Clearly this is not a bad thing. And the fact that a film about drumming could not only hold my attention for 107 minutes but also keep me riveted and breathless for half of that time is no small accomplishment.
I know absolutely nothing about playing the drums. After watching Whiplash, I don’t want to know anything about playing the drums. I cannot differentiate between a great drummer and a competent one. So the drive to be a great drummer is not something I can comprehend. The amount of literal blood that is spilled in the pursuit of this drive is not helpful in the process of comprehension. Why would anyone feel the need to be so fast on the drums? The sound produced provides me with no enjoyment whatsoever. Sigh. I apologize for my ignorance and the fact that my enjoyment of Whiplash would have been enhanced by a greater appreciation of both drum-playing and jazz. In the right mood, I can get into jazz, but it is not one of my favourite genres.
Getting back to the film, one of the things that makes Whiplash special is the performances of the two key actors. This film only works if those actors pull of the performances of their lives; the roles are that demanding. The young man, Andy Neiman, is played by Miles Teller. Andy is an egotistical student who, on his first date, brags about getting into New York’s Schaffer Conservatory because it’s the best in the country. Teller’s performance isn’t perfect and it doesn’t help that his character is not entirely believable (not to me), but time and again he impressed me with his ability to make Andy feel real. Fletcher, the outrageously driven teacher who makes the worst basic-training drill sergeants look soft, is played by J.K. Simmons and this has to be his best performance ever. It’s Oscar material. The most sympathetic character in the film is Andy’s father, played very well by Paul Reiser. The relationship between father and son was one of the highlights for me.
The other thing that sets Whiplash apart is that tight focus I have referred to. The structure, editing and pacing of this film is pitch perfect, and the ending, well, let’s just say that Chazelle knows how to end a film, a skill too often lacking in filmmakers.
Whiplash is an original, compelling and altogether extraordinary film. We don’t have enough of those, so Whiplash deserves ****. And yet ... I am forced to add that Whiplash was far from satisfying on a moral level. While the film does not endorse the use of abusive measures to encourage students to do their best, it does seem to suggest that working as hard as you possibly can to be great at something is one of the things life is all about. Sorry, but while I admire, and have benefitted much from, the work of great masters, I believe the concept of pursuing greatness is fundamentally flawed. Whiplash is a prime example of why this is, but seems to excuse it all the same. Not to mention that the film doesn’t do enough to challenge Fletcher’s tactics. Doesn’t work for me. I’m no fan of teaching methods which focus on building a student’s self-esteem regardless of how inferior the work is, but the kind of dehumanization exercised by teachers like Fletcher is much worse. So Whiplash, great film though it is, will not make my top ten and I am tempted to drop it down to ***+. In any event, my mug is up.