If there is any movie from the past decade that you need to see, if you could only watch one last movie before you die, there is no doubt in my mind that it is Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. There are so very few films that manage to grip the viewer so completely that you don’t just feel like these events are real, but that you forget you’re even watching a movie altogether. It is, no question, the most visceral movie that I have ever seen.
Starring Miles Teller, Whiplash follows Andrew Neiman, a young, gifted drummer studying at the Shaffer Conservatory, the most prestigious musical college in New York. With some effort, he manages to pull himself into the jazz-oriented studio band of Terence Fletcher, played for an Academy Award winning performance by J.K. Simmons, regarded as a kingmaker when it comes to the careers of jazz musicians. From the start, Fletcher pushes Andrew farther than any man can take, the stem of a wild, unabated torrent of abuse in the name of creating the next great musician. Throughout Whiplash, Fletcher maintains his hard stance on the dangers of complacency, and thus his hatred for the words “Good Job”.
But while Simmons won his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the truth is that he is, without a doubt, one of the two core, principal characters in this film. The performance that he gives for Fletcher is without question one of the greatest performances to be experienced in cinema, and there is no question to the absolute worthiness that Simmons possesses for his Academy Award. Fletcher as a character, and as the main antagonist of this film and of Andrew’s drive and ambition, will stir up a deep well of moral ambiguity, and without a doubt most viewers will leave their seats unable to determine whether he is a horrible, psychopathic monster, the greatest cultivator of musical genius, or perhaps, even both.
But in that case, whichever he is, the true credit in the favor of Whiplash is that the movie doesn’t try to sell the viewer on which he is. It reveals things about the character and slowly unravels Fletcher, but it doesn’t truly attempt to say something about him in any particular direction. Whiplash lays the cards out on the table and lets the audience draw it’s own conclusions about the character, and that is where the film’s strength lies. It rests upon the fact that it gives the audience something they both want and need to talk about, yet at the same time, provides a satisfying, uplifting conclusion to Andrew’s character.
Andrew, as played by Miles Teller, starts the movie out in a flat, two-dimensional role. He is your average, nervous, nineteen-year old college freshman, talented yet nervous and unsure of himself. It is a common archetype played out numerous times throughout the cinematic history of Hollywood and the festival circuit, but thankfully, here it acts as a springboard for his development throughout the film. As he gets pushed harder and harder by Fletcher, his character begins to develop in new ways that simply aren’t anticipated by the audience until they occur. Andrew gains confidence and becomes arrogant at breakneck pace. He pushes himself so far beyond what could possibly be expected of regular men that his hands regularly bleed profusely during his performances. As he progresses throughout the movie, he will shirk off everything that makes him human, his family and his friends, in order to achieve true greatness.
Which leads to the one downside of this film, Andrew’s fleetingly present girlfriend Nicole. To say she is portrayed by Melissa Benoist would be a stretch, because that would imply she has any true character aside from appearing in three scenes and orbiting around Andrew as some pathetic plot device intended to show us how much Andrew has been changed by Fletcher and his spot in the Shaffer Conservatory Studio Band. While it is certainly effective in making Andrew look like an egotistical jerk-ass, that same effect could be created through any other number of methods that wouldn’t marginalize the only female character with any bare semblance of plot relevance.
It’s completely alright to have a movie that doesn’t have any female characters, especially if it focuses on the working relationship between two main characters and nobody else. You don’t need to shoehorn some token woman in just to meet some diversity mandate, but creating a female character solely to orbit around a male character as some sort of satellite love interest is outright insulting.
Thankfully, however, that is quite possibly the only flaw with the entire film. From the show-stealing J.K. Simmons to Damien Chazelle and editor Tom Cross’ excellent direction, to the absolutely mind-blowing score by Justin Hurwitz which exists tightly interwoven with the plot itself, Whiplash exists as a cinematic ideal of near-perfection. There is no doubt about this one unequivocal truth; Whiplash is one of the greatest films that the world has ever seen.