Starring: Miles Teller (Divergent), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man), Paul Reiser (Aliens), Melissa Benoist (Glee), Austin Stowell (Dolphin Tale)
Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle (The Last Exorcism Part II)
Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes
Release Date: 10 October (US), 16 January (UK)
You can wring intensity out of anything in film; even the simple act of reading can be made nail biting if enough stakes and drama are put behind it. And yet there are so many films where explosions go off and the fate of the world is at stake…and you don’t feel a thing. Whiplash is certainly a film made by someone who understands the power of intensity, and uses it to make a film about jazz drumming so gripping and ferocious that you’ll be on the edge of your seat more firmly than you would during any overblown action sequence.
We’ve all heard the story of the underdog rising the ranks to greatness, where everyone underestimates him and he has to prove himself to become the greatest. Yeah, Whiplash is that story but with any sentimentality or sweetness ripped out through the chest. This is a film that pulls no punches. In fact, it practically assaults you with punches. It is a story that shows the painful cost of pushing yourself too far, but also somehow manages to encourage you to do so. By no means does it encourage the behaviour on display, but it does show that there is a method to the madness. It’s an ambiguous film in message, but not in a vague “eh, I’m not sure” kind of way and that’s refreshing to see. The pacing here is pitch perfect, keeping the threat high but always slowing down at just the right moments to let it sink in. The film does at one point feel like it’s come to its climax and then keeps going, but you’ll be glad it does. The final ending may seem abrupt to some, but it just drives the themes home so well that any more at that point would have been overkill. I know I’m being vague, but you need to go into Whiplash as blind as possible if you want the best effect. Just don’t go in expecting sunshine and rainbows, or you’ll just come out feeling more abused than you should.
Whiplash is really a two-man show, and you couldn’t ask for much better performances than those given by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Teller has been doing solid work for the past few years but mostly in below-average movies, and here he’s finally given some material that allows him to how much talent he actually has. He imbues Andrew Neiman with a lot of complexity, creating a character that is sympathetic but not always likable. You understand where he’s coming from but that doesn’t stop him from being an arsehole sometimes. He’s a flawed human who is being asked to be perfect, and even if he didn’t have a superiority complex that would an impossible task. A scene at a family dinner really drives this home, as Tellar manages to balance that fine line between underappreciated artist and self-aggrandising wannabe. It’s a performance that very much sums up this generation; one full of ego-filled youngsters who think they’re already the “next big thing” and are therefore better than everyone else, unaware that all of them have the exact same idea and have yet to get anywhere near that dream. But as great as Teller is, he’s got nothing on Simmons’ career-defining performance as Terence Fletcher. His ferocity, his demeanour, his crude wit, the way he moves his hands to silence people; all help to create a character that, whilst somewhat OTT, is still a conceivable human being and it’s both wonderful and frightening to behold. But much like how Andrew can fall into being selfish, Simmons also manages to weave bits of sympathy into Fletcher to balance him out too. A scene where he explains his methods and goals to Andrew actually has you getting on his side, but never to the point where he’s redeemed. Simmons most certainly deserves all the buzz he’s been getting for his performance, but to completely overshadow Teller’s efforts would be a crime and he deserves just as much praise.
It’s hard to describe how great Whiplash is, especially when I’m still in awe of it. It’s just something you have to experience for yourself. Damien Chazelle’s directorial feature debut is a simple but engrossing masterpiece of cinema, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the future. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons deliver the best work of their respective careers, ably supported by a sharp script, a jazz soundtrack that can be both electrifying and ominous, and some of the best editing I’ve seen in a long time. But above all, it’s a necessary cautionary tale for anyone aspiring to greatness that never sugar coats itself for one moment. It’s one of the best films of 2014 and my personal pick of the Best Picture nominees as of now, and fans of film, music, or any form of art need to see this movie right away. It may cause you to question your dreams, but it may also encourage you to try that much harder at achieving them.
FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!