Published on December 10th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
In the age of coddling, Whiplash asks, how far into physical and mental abuse should a teacher push a student to achieve greatness? Also, duck!
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” growls J.K. Simmons as Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash. Fletcher is a teacher and conductor at The Shaffer Conservatory, the best (fictional) music school in the United States. In the age of schools removing grades from report cards because they might make students feel poorly about themselves, Fletcher lays down a decidedly more Full Metal Jacket approach, shoving past J. Jonah Jameson to get into R. Lee Ermey territory. “I push people beyond what’s expected of them,” he says. “I believe that it is an absolute necessity.”
Miles Teller is Andrew Neyman, a new drum student at Shaffer who aspires to be the next Buddy Rich (who incidentally, had his own rage issues). Teller comes under Fletcher’s wing, or rather, the back of his hand, as the teacher uses every bit of physical, verbal, and mental abuse at his disposal to manipulate the young drummer into getting better. By the way, the title of the film comes from one of the songs utilized in the movie, Hank Levy’s ‘Whiplash.’
Whiplash is a dazzling visceral experience with editing like jazzy, popping staccato snare hits. The lighting is frequently low, and the framing tight, the visual representation of obsessions and dark passions playing out; you’re the air in between Fletcher as he leans in to intimidate Neyman, or Neyman as he tilts closer to his drum kit. Sound, vision, and fury come together in a display of cinematic fireworks that leaves sweat and blood splattered on the kit. Oddly enough, Whiplash is almost like a sports movie, both in terms of how it looks and how some of the story plays out. Friday Night Lights for the literati? Actually, director Damien Chazelle, who also directed 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, has cited Rocky and especially Raging Bull as inspirations.
Simmons is great as always, and while it’s easy to think of him in kookier roles, let’s not forget the terror he was as neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger on Oz. And the movie only solidifies my opinion of Miles Teller as one of the best young actors out there today. Between this and his turn in the surprising film, The Spectacular Now, Teller’s charisma helps him play characters that aren’t the best looking guy in the room, and aren’t even all that likeable at times, but can still gain the sympathy of the audience. As a side note, Teller does a great job in the drum scenes (spoken as a person who is NOT a drummer, that is). He has been drumming from the age of 15, and had a coach working with him for a few months to be able to approximate the songs from the movie.
If I had one note that isn’t as glowing as the rest of my testimony, I would say that the movie feels a little underwritten in brief moments, and overwritten in others. The prime example of underwriting is Neyman’s love interest, Nicole, played by Melissa Benoist, who is mostly a cipher, included so Neyman has someone to break up with so we can see how driven he. Now, don’t get me wrong — I love that the movie subverts the natural tacked on love story that these movies can often have, and I love that it feels cut short. It’s more in the introducing the character that irked me. In the first part of the movie, we spend a lot of time having Neyman wander into the mystique of Fletcher, slowly getting glimpses of him that show us Neyman’s curiosity about him. But Nicole is Operation Dumbo dropped into the movie, an employee at a movie theatre that Neyman happens upon in a scene that’s more meant to introduce his father (played adequately by Paul Reiser). She’s established as existing, and that’s about it, at least until their date.
In terms of overwriting, there are a few things that stand out, like a certain car accident that feels wildly over the top and unnecessary, and perhaps some on the nose dialogue as Fletcher spells out his methods to Neyman over a drink. There’s also the matter of cheating things like the anecdote about Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head to shame him into getting better. In actuality, Jones threw the cymbal at Parker’s feet, embarrassing him, sure, but not physically abusing him. Of course, some of this is movie logic, or cymbal-ism as it were, so it starts becoming silly to nitpick. In the grand scheme of things, these issues do little to throw the viewer off — there’s so much energy being splattered around it’s easy to ignore. And the ending is so spellbindingly well done that it removes any doubt that you’re watching one of the best films of 2014.
The central question Whiplash is asking is, ‘how far is too far?’ In my mind, coddling isn’t going to help anyone grow, but neither is abusing them. One needs to teach people with encouragement, but also with constructive criticism and truth. Though maybe my writing would be better if someone was beating me about the face and neck once in awhile. Either way, Whiplash doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But it presents the question brilliantly. Hell, there are no easy answers. Sometimes, it’s enough for a movie to just raise tough questions and explore the ideas that follow.