About nine months ago my dad came home from attending The Sundance Film Festival and I put aside my jealousy as I prepared to hear about all the amazing movies he saw while he was there. But really, all he seemed to want to talk about was this movie called Whiplash that shook him to his core. He didn’t tell me much. All I knew was that it captivated my dad to the point that he barely mentioned anything else at the festival, and that it starred J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller (who I knew then as “that guy from The Spectacular Now”). Fast forward to last month, Whiplash seemed to be all any critic wanted to talk about when the subject of independent films came up. So needless to say, I had incredibly high expectations.
Whiplash begins with a black screen and a cacophony of drumming, which eventually resembles less of a musical beat and more of a swell of locusts. And so the anxiety-ridden mood for the film is set. The relationship between Andrew (Teller), a Shaffer Conservatory student and Fletcher (Simmons), the conductor/teacher is immediately established as an abusive and uneasy one when Andrew is offered a spot in Fletcher’s airtight jazz band playing drums. His teaching method takes root in the theory that to achieve greatness, you must be pushed to your absolute edge, and he uses every opportunity to ridicule, slander, and humiliate his students. Although Fletcher inflicts his traumatizing approach on all of the band members, his focus becomes zeroed in on Andrew, and likewise for the audience, it’s as if only the two of them exist. The story itself is more or less simple, but the execution is pitch-perfect as it takes the narrative of a young student who wants nothing more than to really be something in his field and makes it a downright exhilarating film-viewing experience.
Teller shines in this role, proving himself as one of Hollywood’s best young actors currently working. Simmons is equally commanding in his role, giving the entire film an edge of uncertainty and anxiety. As he abuses his students, you too begin to feel deeply affected by his behavior. Damien Chazelle’s debut directorial efforts are stellar, and similarly his writing here makes Whiplash entirely incomparable to his earlier work on The Last Exorcism Part II (2013). What also really helps move this thrilling feature along is Tom Cross’s fast-paced, rhythmic editing. It complements the constant soundtrack of inconsistent jazz, and succeeds in making musical performances truly an exciting experience to behold.
To say that this film surpassed my expectations would be a gross understatement. It never once faltered, and the twists and turns of the story were near impossible to predict, often resulting in a literal jaw drop. Whiplash will suck you in, beat you down, and remind you what film is truly capable of.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.