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Whiplash (2014)

An unceasingly frenetic, exhilarating, and thrilling film which literally had me holding my breath for minutes at a time.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, the naïve yet naturally talented drummer, freshly enrolled in one of the best music colleges in America, and eager to prove himself.

J. K. Simmons plays Fletcher, the sledgehammer to Andrew’s statuette. Brutal, barbaric, savage, and tyrannical, Fletcher wages an unceasing campaign of psychological and physical abuse on his band members in order to elicit their absolute maximum potential, and push them beyond what anyone expects of them. The terror radiating from Fletcher is massive. All-encompassing.

The story tracks Andrew’s progress in the Studio band, conducted by Fletcher, as he pushes them to greater and greater extremes, and plays complex psychological games in order to completely demoralise them and extract almost impossible feats of musical performance.

Aside from having an absolutely perfect lead-support character dynamic, <em>Whiplash</em> achieves something which so many films fail: it never once drops tempo – fittingly – without meaning to do so.

The pace of the film is blindingly fast and extraordinarily tense for the entirety of the first two acts, and most of the third, only dropping its rocketing pace for the odd second to compound tension and maximise brutality.

Like many two-person character play films, the story centres almost entirely around Andrew and Fletcher, and how their chaotic and dysfunctional relationship affects one another.

Although I found the construction and execution of Andrew’s character to be nothing special, Simmons’ portrayal of Fletcher is positively electrifying and exudes a palpable field of tension and terror that extends out of the screen and notably touches the audience.

Throughout the start of first act, there are tiny visual beats where the characters and audience catch a glimpse of Fletcher’s shadow behind a door, or see him catch Andrew peeking through a window on a rehearsal and so on, and the sensation of fear is real, and powerful. This is when Fletcher is only on screen for a split second, if at all; when he is in full horrifying glory, it is so much worse.

I went into <em>Whiplash</em> expecting to see a watered-down Holywood-friendly facsimile of Vernon Schillinger, from the HBO series <em>Oz</em>, an apparently similar character first portrayed by Simmons almost two decades ago. However, even though <em>Oz</em> is one of the greatest prison dramas ever made, and Schillinger is undeniably scary as a serial rapist, vehement racist, and domineering patriarch with a power complex, I don’t find Schillinger half as terrifying as Fletcher.

I do not say this lightly: no one has ever been more deserving of an Oscar than J. K. Simmons with his portrayal of Fletcher. No one. There have been those of equal merit, but I cannot recall a character portrayal of superior commitment and perfection.

What few technical and narrative faults <em>Whiplash</em> has are burned away by the searing white heat of J. K. Simmons’ literally awesome portrayal of Fletcher.

But, loath as I am to say this, there are some faults. Luckily, they are minor. Teller’s performance is great, but not extraordinary. A minimalist story can be beneficial in films focussing on one specific human relationship, but there are times where I felt I wanted more from it.

I found the lack of female characters disturbing, but not half as disturbing as the fact that the only female character meriting a name was nothing more than a half-baked love interest who dissolves quickly into the wings, never to be seen again. I suppose this is to further accentuate Andrew’s commitment to – and obsession with – drumming, but it is a little worrying nonetheless.

My major concern, however, and <strong>this is a spoiler, as will be this entire paragraph</em>, is that in the final scene, almost the final sequence of shots, the expressions exchanged between Fletcher and Andrew paint a clear picture of a man who realises that brutal, unyielding torment and vindictive psychological bullying is the only way to draw true talent out of an otherwise unsatisfactorily motivated person; that one must utterly destroy something in order to build it back stronger. There can be no doubt that despite Fletcher’s sudden and gut-wrenching betrayal at the beginning of the last scene, Andrew is only spurred on because of this, accepting his treatment, and vindicating Fletcher’s abuse. That, to me, is troubling.

But that is what this film is about; pushing someone beyond what they thought were their limits at all costs, and although we see how that can go horribly wrong (Fletcher’s phone call) sometimes it can go phenomenally well.

I usually like to conclude my reviews with some summation of everything I’ve said, coupled with a non-committal recommendation to either consider seeing the film, or not to bother. However, this time, all I will say is this: if you do watch <em>Whiplash</em>, and I wholeheartedly recommend you do, try to remember to breathe.

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