Whiplash, 2014, USA
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. He’s a drummer, and hopes to become one of the drumming greats. He draws the attention of Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a brilliant but ruthless conductor at the school. He’s invited to join his band. At times, Fletcher treats Andrew in an almost fatherly way, telling him stories of how the great drummers were influenced to succeed by their mentors, but this behavior is contrasted by incredible verbal and physical abuse. Andrew practices for hours and hours in an attempt to live up to Fletcher’s expectations, and as time goes on, Fletcher’s influence changes who he is and the other relationships in his life.
Whiplash brings up an interesting question: is it worth pushing a possible musical prodigy to their limit in order to bring out their gift? Fletcher’s justification of his methods is just that: by saying ‘good job’ to someone, you’re not encouraging them to push harder and reach that next level: you’re telling them they’re good enough as they are. But Fletcher is also an example of a dangerous human being: someone who is terribly manipulative and almost sociopathic in his abuse. So do the ends justify the means? It’s a question that’s left unanswered, and it’s up to the viewer to make the decision themselves.
Simmons was incredible as Fletcher, in what is possibly my favourite 2014 performance so far. He manages to put the audience on edge: one minute he’s being friendly and gentle, the next, he’s spewing out the worst, most frightening insults you can imagine. Laughter peppered the theatre at times, not because what he said was funny, but because it was so uncomfortable that you just had to chuckle to work out the pit that has settled itself in your stomach. And, as an aside, I loved the use of light in the film, and the way it perfectly highlighted his face. It added an extra dimension of power and fear to his performance. Just from the way he walks, and the way he places his coat and hat on the coat stand, you can see that he is not a man to be trifled with. He is powerful and he knows it.
Teller was also very good as Andrew. He starts the film as a young man out of his element, and ends the film as someone else entirely. It’s inspiring and entirely satisfying to watch. I’m not a musician, but I could tell that most, if not all, of the drumming was real: apparently he had been a drummer prior to making this film.
Whiplash was excellent and one of the highlights of this year. I highly recommend it.