As its name might suggest, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is not a film for the lighthearted. It is very much a one-force-drives-all film that explores one question: to what depths are we willing to go to succeed? Like the jazz music for which the characters suffer, the tone is feverish, frenzied, and maniacal. In this film, characters are embellished caricatures. The director brings them to the brink of insanity, takes them out, and then just loops back around to bring them back in. If the film were put on a heart rate monitor, the screen would show fast jagged lines, a heart rate of over 100 beats per minute, and a risk of cardiac arrest. Yet somehow, for a film traveling through hyperspace, its pacing is remarkably measured and its message decidedly thought-provoking. It just might be one of the most unapologetic and self-assured films of the year.
Whiplash follows the life of a young, aspiring jazz drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) whose dream is to become one of the greats, the next Buddy Rich. The film examines with terrifying intimacy Andrew’s relationship with his maestro, jazz ensemble instructor Fletcher (J.K Simmons). Fletcher is the kind of man who remarks, “There are no two words in the English language worse than ‘Good Job.’” He psychologically manipulates his students in the name of pushing them to be better musicians. A scene in the middle of the film encapsulates Fletcher’s teaching style. Clad in black, Fletcher exudes power as he hovers over Andrew on the drums. Fletcher raises his hands, and Andrew raises his drumsticks and begins to play, brow sweaty, face in a grimace, knuckles white. Fletcher yells “Faster, faster, faster.” Close-ups of the characters’ faces create a sort of claustrophobia as we are forced to watch Andrew’s hands turn red with blood. At the end, Andrew holds the sticks limp against his chest, the blood-stained tips pointing toward his heart.
There is no question that Chazelle has a vision for his film. He takes one question—what do we sacrifice for success—and constructs the ideal environment in which to explore it. Through muted colors and close-up shots that create a hazy atmosphere, Chazelle intensifies the more intimate, psychological moments of the film. The score is affecting (hardly a surprise for a film about music). But in a striking departure from typical film scores, fast, frantic music is the norm, while some of the film’s most intense moments are accompanied by slow, measured melodies.
The film’s cinematography and score both reinforce the psychological drama at its center. Andrew and Fletcher are perfect vehicles to examine the conflicts and passions associated with ambition. But sometimes, unfortunately, they feel like little more than just that—vehicles. In Fletcher, we have a man who very much believes that everything is worth sacrificing to reach his measure of success. In Andrew, we have an easily impressionable young kid. His father is his support and shelter, while his girlfriend plays the part of “that thing he will sacrifice.” If I have one bone to pick (aside from the noticeable, disconcerting lack of female characters in the film) it is that at times Andrew and Fletcher feel less like fully realized characters than caricatures inhabiting a thought experiment.
It is the powerful performances by Simmons and Teller that elevate their characters above archetypes. In the hands of another actor Fletcher would have been a drill-sergeant. But Simmons plays him to the end with the utmost commitment, revealing nuances a lesser actor may not have found. Fletcher isn’t just always mad; Simmons plays him with brusqueness, delusion, charm, and sadness. Teller holds his own against his seasoned counterpart. He has a particularly expressive face, and a commitment to his role as a drummer. An avid drummer since age 14, Teller performs many of the pieces in the film himself, bringing a welcome realism to his portrayal of Andrew.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its ending, a musical performance that brims with even more intensity than the scenes that come before it. And let me tell you: that is no small feat. I find the ending admirable for its fearlessness, for its decision to leave open-ended the question it hoped to answer: success or sacrifice? In Whiplash, there is no clear choice. Andrew sacrifices so much, but in his passion for his dream he also shows a mix of drive, genuineness, and longing that is hard to ignore.
Whiplash’s ending might seem entirely bleak to many, but I find that, to some extent, the film’s powerful ending floats the possibility of compromise. What if these characters’ relationships could actually change? What if they could compromise with one another? What if the question wasn’t one of success and sacrifice, but a question of how the characters could change their own stances to find a middle ground? And perhaps in this middle ground they just might be able to find success without all of the sacrifice. As a college student at the beginning of my career, I find these to be particularly timely and relevant questions: not just what are we willing to sacrifice for our dream, but how willing are we to compromise?
This is no High School Musical. Tense, dark, forceful.