WHIPLASH. Starring: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, and Melissa Benoist. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated MA15+. Restricted (Strong coarse language). 107 min.
This is a compellingly powerful American drama which depicts the development of a gifted musical jazz talent. The movie won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for best drama at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The title of the movie metaphorically refers to a sudden impact on the body that is traumatic, and that can have lasting effects. "Whiplash" is also the title of a jazz composition by Hank Levy.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) plays the part of a promising, ambitious 19-year old drummer who enrols at a highly competitive musical conservatory in New York, where all that matters is the development of potential. His terrifying instructor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) is the sudden force who targets his talent. "Were you rushing, or were you dragging", Fletcher yells, and then proceeds to further humiliate Andrew as he breaks down in tears in front of his peers. Fletcher is ruthless and relentless in his verbal harassment of Andrew, and the scenes of his harassment are hard to watch.
Fletcher's cruel power games and emotional manipulations are unmerciful. Andrew plays the drums until his hands bleed, and he is told that "a good job" is never good enough. Fletcher is also a person, who seems impossible to please. He is the musician-equivalent of Sergeant Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick's confronting "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) where a hapless young recruit suicides, because he can't stand the verbal assault of his Sergeant any longer.
The emotional price of Andrew's rigorous training is costly. Andrew shuts his family and friends out, including Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a girl he cares for. He faces Fletcher's daily verbal assaults with anxiety, self-doubt, resolve, a fighting spirit, and resilience, and he confronts Fletcher to emerge finally as the talented musician Fletcher knew he had.
The film embraces the joy of jazz, but never dilutes the power of the characters it draws. Fletcher is masochistic in the way he treats Andrew, but only Fletcher knows the magnitude of the talent that Andrew is hiding. Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) is depicted provocatively as too nice a person to be ever able to teach his son. Fletcher is presented as the antithesis of his father that Andrew needs for his talent to emerge.
The film is edited beautifully, as scenes of Fletcher's viciousness cut to the crashing of Andrew's drums and cymbals. Damien Chazelle's direction is sharp and assured. He directs the film with excellent appreciation of good jazz and makes sure that the viewer stays alert constantly for the possibility that Andrew will break down and be unable to endure Fletcher's treatment of him any more. The acting of both Miles Teller as Andrew, and J. K. Simmons as Fletcher is outstanding.
The film conveys an energy that is involving and gripping, and the end of Andrew's journey is genuinely inspiring. As Fletcher forces Andrew to play better and better, the film's energy (as well as Andrew's playing) increases in pace. The movie shows us the costs and benefits of artistic ambition, but it tells us that the struggle to artistic fulfilment is painful if the rewards of achieving it are to be enjoyed completely. It shows us how hard the push for "greatness" can be, but it also raises questions about the morality of pushing someone to the edge of breakdown to achieve it.
In a wonderful concluding scene, the film convinces us that Andrew finally has become the gifted, creative musical force that Fetcher knew him to be. Andrew's journey under the influence of Fletcher has developed a passion that is now fulfilled.
What happens to the person behind that passion once it is realised, however, is for another movie to tell. It is left to the viewer to judge whether Fletcher's calculated abuse of Andrew justified Andrew's artistic fulfilment, and whether Andrew's talent could have been nurtured by a kinder human being.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released October 23rd 2014