I left the cinema feeling wiped out and emotionally drained, exhausted after not been allowed to relax for almost two hours. Whiplash is a gruelling experience for the audience, but that’s nothing compared to what is undergone by its protagonist, Andrew, a drummer just starting out at an elite music school in New York City.
Everyone at the Shaffer Conservatory knows of Terence Fletcher, the revered conductor of the school’s top jazz band, and Andrew is no exception: he wants to be accepted into Fletcher’s band and have the opportunity to be spotted by talent scouts and make it in the jazz industry. But Fletcher doesn’t achieve his excellent results without resorting to some questionable methods. To him, the worst words in the English language are ‘good job’, and he rules the rehearsal room through fear, screaming and yelling and throwing things at his students. He discovers their weaknesses, and ruthlessly exploits them. He pushes them to breaking point, physically and emotionally, and only the very best survive.
Fletcher is played with a kind of crazed zeal by J K Simmons (who yesterday won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor, and is favourite to win at the Oscars on February 22nd): his eyes miss nothing, his ear is attuned to every note, and dressed all in black with bald head and bulging muscles he is a formidable presence, despite his short stature. Simmons captures Fletcher’s mania and desire for control, yet also allows us to see his humanity in the film’s later stages, and even – despite ourselves – understand his methods.
Miles Teller is equally brilliant as the student Andrew, who is as obsessive over his art as Fletcher is. But where Fletcher is loud and brutal, Andrew turns inward, pushing himself arguably even harder than Fletcher pushes him in rehearsals. I couldn’t help being reminded of a line from Macbeth as I watched Whiplash: ‘Who would have the the old man to have had so much blood in him.’ I never realised the drums were such a brutal instrument, and director (and drummer himself) Damian Chazelle doesn’t flinch from showing us the effects on Andrew as he strives to impress Fletcher and tears his hands to shreds in the process. Teller plays 99% of the music in the film, and presumably shared much of the physical pain with his character, and you can see it on his face every time he unwinds his blood-soaked bandages.
There are many films that explore the intricacies and intensities of the teacher-pupil dynamic: the battle of wills, the mind games, the teacher who recognises greatness and yet feels threatened by it, the pupil who wants to learn but also wants to do his own thing. Whiplash excels through the strength of Simmons and Teller’s performances, and also in its portrayal of different expressions of artistic obsession in the pursuit of excellence. Whiplash isn’t the perfect film – there are a couple of narrative missteps and places where the plot feels more than a little thin – but it offers such an intense experience that it’s easy to overlook these faults. And, if you want a lesson in how to end a film at exactly the right moment, Whiplash offers a breathtaking example.