Posted in: Review

Whiplash

It’s been awhile since audiences have been given a film about a callow recruit with promise being browbeaten into a soldier considered worthy by their terrorizing but fatherly drill instructor. With a smaller military and the exhaustion born of overlapping unending wars, there isn’t much appetite these days for those kind of stories. In fact, last year’s greatest drill-instructor film had nothing to do with marching in a straight line and everything to do with keeping time.

In Damien Chazelle’s steam-heated pressure cooker Whiplash, socially maladroit student Andrew (Miles Teller) is determined to be a brilliant jazz drummer. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the demon-teacher at a New York music conservatory who Andrew thinks guards the entrance to greatness, sees potential in this student but won’t let him past without a serious flaying. From the second Andrew steps into Fletcher’s studio band, the insults and cutting remarks fly from Fletcher’s lips. The only question seems to be how long Andrew can tough it out. But since he and Fletcher have a surprising amount in common, the story then becomes more about who will outlast the other.

Although Andrew is supposed to be the story’s focus, Fletcher takes it hostage from the start. It’s a role that Simmons, with his machine-gun elocution and radar-locked focus, is almost suited for. He’s less a person than avenging muse, unable to rest until the notes are played just so. A burning-eyed and malevolent stick figure of rage, he keeps his students on the verge of suicidal hysteria in his drive for perfection. As he lays into them for not quite getting the tone right after hours of practicing the same piece (a taut string-puller of a Hank Levy number with a tricky time signature that the film takes its name from), they look like abused pets or children being lectured one time too many.

For Andrew, though, the insults matter less than the results. He might cry or erupt in rage and frustration, but it’s not for the same reasons as his classmates. Fletcher’s arsenal of demeaning verbal weaponry runs the full drill-instructor gamut, from threats of violence to homophobic jabs to your-mother-can’t-help-you-now confidence shredders. But the friendless Andrew cares only about one thing: Being the greatest jazz drummer of his time. Set against that desire, being tormented by a sadist and practicing until blood from his shredded hands spatters the drum kit, is nothing to worry about. He can barely make it through a family dinner (Paul Reiser in the thankless role as Andrew’s baffled dad) or a date with a girl (Melissa Benoist) who mistakenly perceives something sweet in him without committing a half-dozen social faux pas. On some fundamental level, Andrew agrees with Fletcher’s belief that the two most harmful words in the English are “good job.” Because nothing in life or their art will ever be good enough for either of them.

Chazelle expanded Whiplash from a short film of the same name. It shows. Although his story’s core burns bright, its embers cool faster than one would imagine. The amped-up drill-instructor relationship gives the film its juice but not necessarily in the best way. Fletcher’s cruelest lines are played for their shock-humor value; audiences eat it up as eagerly as they do the whipcrack editing and tightly measured performances. The framework Chazelle erects around that relationship can rarely hold as much interest. Teller, so often the magnetic center of attention in films like The Spectacular Now, is passive and buried here. Even in the film’s dramatic reversal of a surprise ending, the tension is still primarily about what Fletcher will do, not Andrew.

There’s a brave conceit here, in that Chazelle is willing to entertain the notion that Fletcher and Andrew are right in believing that generosity of spirit is the enemy of creative genius. In that sense, they deserve each other. But the true implications of that lonely drive, and the Faustian bargain both for artists and their audiences, is never convincingly explored. That failure leaves Whiplash like its characters: full of skill and technique and fury, but hollow at the core.

Comments (31) on "Whiplash"

  1. You know nothing about movies. Whoever hired this hack to write this review should fire him, then fire themselves for hiring him in the first place. This was the best movie of the year.

  2. You are fucking dumb.

    “But since he and Fletcher have a surprising amount in common, the story then becomes more about who will outlast the other.”

    That is literally, the most absurd assumption of all time. They have nothing in common, and movie certainly wasn’t about toleration and outlasting each other. I suggest you fucking watch the movie again.

    The movie was never about outlasting each other. It was about Andrew, doing whatever it takes to be the best, to be on top. And he just knew that Fletcher was the key to this success, that everything he do from that point on in the band will determine whether he will be able to land his dream.

    That’s it. No wacko whatever shit you’re saying. It’s a fucking simple plot. Get you shit straight.

    1. You acknowledge that “it was about andrew doing whatever it takes to be the best” but then you say that the two have nothing in common. Wtf? That’s the whole point- they’re both cutthroat ambition junkies. Go back and watch the scene with andrew at the dinner table. Or when he breaks up with nicole. Or when he berates Connolly and tells him to turn his pages. The two characters are undoubtedly very similar.

      I like the movie a lot but the reviewer makes a lot of good points. I’m capable of being objective enough to recognize that. You on the other hand…

      1. I really enjoyed this movie, and certainly “got it”, as is often the argument when one does not enjoy a movie. In fact, on second viewing I thought it held up just as well as the first, but this reviewer did make some very good points. To add, some of his negatives actually turn out to be my positives. There was a hyper-realism that I actually appreciated about the film, a degree of contrivance that makes good stories just that … good stories. Absolute realism is impossible because cinema is supposed to be contrived. That’s why certain scenes are picked, certain conversations, arcs, plot-points and twists. The pretension happens when we attempt to level film up to reality. The running from the car accident, the close-ups of bleeding hands, the blending of hero and villain, the improbable likelihood of him being allowed to do his big solo at the end without intervention (with all those manufactured pauses to allow him to return to the stage and start up, and not be interrupted) … that’s what made this movie such a bloody blast.

  3. I think the movie makes the audience wonder about which are the correct ways to teach someone if you want them to be excellent? and to me both fletcher and andrew are twin souls, except andrew is weaker minded, always seeking the admiraton of others, always the jealous looser who wants to show he is not a looser, he has talent but he can not balance his pursues in life, too much of a single minded man, yet he regrets his decisions a lot, specially breaking up with the girl then calling her to ask her out a few months later, speaking againts fletcher yet still wanting to play for him, andrew is weak, he cant choose what he wants and often does what he is pushed to do, but he has talent and he realizes that in the end, thats why when he challenges fletcher at the end and shows him what he can do, he finally does something great, because he was courageous which is what he needed the entire time, and it is because fletcher seek to hurt him that he managed to be brave, and fletcher recognizes that andrew can make great music, and fletchers shows him respect, to me this is a coming of age movie, great in many ways, I would have liked they explore a little deeper andrew’s relationship with nicole, so as to show the audience that breaking up with nicole was a huge sacrifice andrew had to make, but the way they showed it it was very mundane and simple, not really a sacriice at all, the movie is compelling and i think it does what it sets out to do, raising the right questions in the audience mind, what is art? what is excellence? does one need to bleed to achieve it? how much are you willing ti give to achieve greatness? is success what others see or what you think it is? will you be brave when shown confrontation and adversity?

    1. Wow, thanks for the new perspective on the movie. I understood when I watched the movie that the ending was one of the greatest character arcs ever. I just didnt have the words to express why that was.

  4. I’d hate to say it but when you dis a film as well crafted as this with snobbery the fanboys are going eat you alive (as seen in reviews here). Honestly sir, this film was well made, what in the world do you want out of a film? Did your dog die the day you reviewed this film?

  5. This is perhaps the best review of the film. You two just don’t get it. Between someone who says “you know nothing about movies” I’m a film major and yes, he understands this film. This film was so unrealistic. He is late for his first rehearsal, this would never fly in the real life of performance. Showing up on time is number one for any job… Oh, and stop using the word “fucking” you’ll sound smarter and not — gee I can’t resist — FUCKING stupid.

    1. Ah, the five most arrogant, condescending, narcissistic words of the English language, reserved for insecure waiters…I mean, film majors, and other lackeys floating around the edges of the art world…”you just don’t get it”. No one needs a film degree to “get it”. Further more, no one needs a film degree. The funny thing is, I actually agree with you and the film critic about this movie. But just because you’re getting a useless film degree doesn’t give you the right to call anyone stupid or lay claim to what does or does not constitute good art. Lesson of the day for you….get over yourself.

    2. He was not late to his first rehearsal. Fletcher purposely told him the wrong time. You see that when Andrew looks at the rehearsal sheet outside of the room. Time for a re screening or whatever you film tarts call it

  6. What is interesting to me is that I would give this movie 5 stars for precisely the reason you gave it 2.5 stars. Your last paragraph is the perfect embodiment of the juxtaposition of this movie – a Faustian Bargain – and that question left ambiguous for the audience to contemplate is what makes this movie truly great; especially when the terrific acting, editing, rising intensity and climactic twist ending complement the hypothetical argument. I truly believe the argument is convincingly explored, as I can’t stop thinking about the which is the more virtuous answer.

  7. You don’t great at anything by getting the approval of anyone. Did Ginger Baker, or John Bonham come from stories where they waited to be told they were great by some condescending prick? No!!!!!! The film was only realistic in showing the characters need for approval. Being great is relative to what you believe about yourself, and of course which crowd of elitist ass-holes you pander to to look good, or feel good.

    Great review. I did not walk away with a sense that Andrew succeeded. He only succeeded in playing the drums, which he already could have done with our without the nod from Fletcher. To me his need for that nod of approval meant he was just another sucker in the rat race to “Be somebody,” when you are already.

    1. Did you even pay attention to the movie? That last scene was his Charlie Parker moment; he had a metaphorical symbol thrown at his head and he returned and triumphed. It wasn’t about approval. It was about what it takes to be great, overcoming anything that’s thrown at you, whether it be a symbol or an insult. The final scene wasnt about approval it was about mutual recognition of the moment. Get your head out of your ass. It disturbs me how many people find this movie so hard to understand.

  8. LOL. I’m still laughing at this review!!

    I will pay you to make a career change. No really, I will. How much to never have you write a review again?

  9. Holy crap, I’ve rarely encountered a more off-the-mark and more under-qualified film reviewer. Strike that. Never have. You’re a tool. I’ll keep referencing you in the future, though. Why? Same reason I keep an eye on the Tea Party — when they say vote this way, I’ll do the opposite. And when you say a movie is crap, I’ll know we have a winner. Still, I pity what the sad, empty existence your life must be ……

  10. Yeaaaaahhh… can’t agree with this review, at all. The movie is an exercise in high tension, a film purely about single-mindedness and the drumbeat precison required to attain greatness. It’s hollow at the core because he’s hollow at the core, I agree, but that’s part of its strength. That it doesn’t explore other avenues isn’t a failing; it’s a design feature which enables it to emulate the laser beam focus of its primary protagonists. Consider the washed-out nature of all of Andrew’s social interactions; he’s presented as an empty vessel, and the narrow stricture of the plot works perfectly in displaying that. As the film ends you get the bried glimps of something more fulfilling, and again that serves as a counterpoint to the deliberately empty structure.

  11. The movie just wasnt that good, because its so completely unrealistic. If you went to a conservatory to play percussion, would the only thing you work on be trying to play the drums as fast as you can?

    There’s simplifying things, then there’s oversimplifying things. This movie is laughably off the mark.

  12. You are a worthless twat of a (supposed) critic. Only a tool of your caliber, who gets off on going against the grain to be noticed, would choose to soil in such a manner. What a waste you truly are.

    1. I just watched it again and I’m conflicted…this movie quite possibly could be less than I first thought. If approached as a Sci-Fi then maybe this could fly. I’m almost feeling bad for going so hard (yes hard) in my first comment. Maybe it was the people I was watching it with the second time…maybe it was the crappy reviews cycling through my mind. I liked it a lot less the second time. Oh well….

  13. There should be two ratings. One measuring the essentially emotion driven entertainment value, and the other delving into its deeper philosophical underpinnings. I would rate the former 31/2 stars for entertainment value (I loved the movie). I also concur with Chris’ deeper analysis and his 21/2 star rating on that level.

  14. When I read the comments it’s just strikes me as how manipulative the movie is or how strong people are taking on the role, movie characters and defending it, them. It’s quite amusing. I find the critic quite interesting. Thank you for sharing your opinion with me.

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