After two hopelessly bland films and two reviews that are so angry they may even verge on unfair (apologies) here finally comes a film that left me in awe. Whiplash is a film about emotional abuse, the student-teacher relationship and about the suffering of the artist as a young man, but it is also a film that defies easy categorisation. Not because it has a story that takes in all of these tropes and more, but because it is so well directed, edited and scored that it feels almost unique. It is also apparently 107 minutes long, but it flies.
Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be one of the greats, a drummer who can keep any tempo and can go harder and faster than anyone else. He also wants to be noticed by the highly influential music teacher Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Fletcher is tough verging on abusive, though they both believe that it was the cymbal that nearly decapitated Charlie Parker that made him a great, so they are evenly matched. This kind of obsessive ambition and a gruelling self-imposed practise regime leads to a several tense confrontations.
Like many of the best films, the appeal of Whiplash is difficult to put into words – so bear with me, I’ll try my best. There have been jazzy films before, films whose aesthetics mirror the discordance and unpredictability in the changing tempos of jazz, though it is difficult to think of a film that is as sustained a riff as Whiplash. A bout de soufflé comes close though it is more interested in varying its speed, as does Shadows though it is more interested in the people in front of the camera. Whiplash starts with a drum roll over black. The drums get louder and faster until it is almost unbearable and when the film starts, it doesn’t let up. Even simple scenes that could have been used to give the audience time to breath like a sequence in which Andrew walks home from class keep the tempo going. Which is what makes the film so exhilarating. What makes it great is that writer-director Damien Chazelle never lets it feel empty or repetitive.
The characters are fully realized and the fast editing and fancy camerawork does not get in the way of the performances, which are indeed excellent. The film is very physical, rare enough for American cinema – it is tense because you really do think that people could get hurt here and suddenly, unexpectedly. Simmons owns the space around his character and you watch him and look for every movement of his face and every gesture because it is always significant. Teller is great too. He is quieter but his performance is never overwhelmed by Simmons’. The suspense never lets up and every scene moves at a rapid pace and, best of all, the film’s ends without diluting any of what went before. It doesn’t slow down and yet it never seems to be shrill or overbearing (…maybe the car crash…) and it is never boring. Where a lot of recent cinema is about good scenes packaged together into a compilation, Whiplash does not allow a tired scene – it doesn’t stop to explain or rest or consider. It is a sustained, fast-paced, jazzy film and one of the most complete and fully realized films in recent years.
It is easy to forget that a film of quick cutting and fast pans (the final scene has some great pans) can still feel innovative. A bout de soufflé can still feel fresh, but watch Hot Fuzz again and it already feels kind of old. Chazelle shows a remarkable awareness of where to put a camera and how to frame a shot and cut a scene and his film is very effective, but he also never loses sight of the performances and the drama and the tension. There isn’t a shot or a cut here that feels unnecessary or pointless. Chazelle knows exactly what he is doing and Whiplash is a very thrilling and rich film because of that. The final sequence in particular is one of the best in recent years, though to get the full effect, you need to see it where it was intended to be seen – in a cinema and turned up loud. Masterful.