At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival over a year ago, audiences and critics alike were captivated by a small word-of-mouth hit “Fruitvale,” awarding it the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the Dramatic category. Later changed to “Fruitvale Station,” the film was released in July of 2013 to widespread acclaim, moderately successful box office returns, and earned many more independent film awards. Seeing the film for the first time, I was absolutely captivated by the heartbreaking story of a man wrongfully shot and killed by BART police officers to the point where even when the credits ended I stayed seated in the theater and sat silently, unable to move or express any emotions other than shock and sadness. So when the 2014 Sundance Film Festival awarded a film called “Whiplash” the same accolades, I sat patiently and waited for it’s release date, knowing I was going to be in for something once again truly special.
“Whiplash” stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, a promising first year drummer at the world’s most prestigious music academy in the world who will stop at nothing to become one of the greats. Andrew gets recruited into the top jazz ensemble at the school led by J.K. Simmons’s Terence Fletcher, who’s teaching methods are ruthless and terrifying as he attempts to find the next great jazz player. Andrew’s passion turns into obsession as Fletcher pushes his to the brink of his musical ability.
“Whiplash” is electrifying in its pace and composition, truly shining throughout the ensemble pieces. The use of close-ups and quick cutting gives each song played throughout a leg-shaking and heart-pounding intensity found more in action films then musical dramas. Tension slowly builds throughout, like a rubber band being stretched beyond its limits, that culminates in a snapping climax more resonant and weighty than most action films or thrillers released in the past few years. It completely absorbed me; I found myself catching my breath multiple times throughout the film, trying to calm down and give myself a break. Luckily, director Damien Chazelle creates a pace throughout that while staying consistent allows the viewer to have that much needed break, throwing nice character developing moments or extra information that intertwines with the central plot in between these chaotic scenes.
As good as the film stands on a technical level, where it truly outdoes itself is in the performances. Everyone is absolutely fantastic throughout, with Simmons and Teller giving both Oscar-worthy performances. Simmons seems to be a lock for Best Supporting Actor, and for good reason; he’s on point throughout, bringing intensity and venom to a character that I can only assume exists in Chazelle’s nightmares from his music playing as a kid. Terence Fletcher defines the line and then crosses it purposefully, giving audiences a character that is never apologetic and never dull; one that I found myself hating uncontrollably but never being able to ignore when on screen.
Miles Teller is equally fantastic, if not better than Simmons, due to the fact that his character is presented a more complex arc. Fletcher doesn’t change throughout the film, Neyman does. We see times of triumph, hardship, and even just average moments in Teller’s character, and he performs each scene with the strength and gravitas of an award-winning actor. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to follow this kid through this journey to become one of the greats and the sacrifices he makes to himself, both physically and emotionally, to get to that point. There’s almost a calm insanity to his character; an obsession not seen but felt throughout, and one that he can never quite shake even as the film comes to a close.
Filled with triumphant performances and an electrifying sense of style and direction, “Whiplash” is a fine example of a directorial debut done perfectly. Teller and Simmons shine in a tale of obsession and heartbreak, crowning in a climax filled to the brim with tension and uneasiness. While I normally never end reviews imploring people as to whether or not they must go see a film, I feel like it would be a disservice to anyone that reads this if I didn’t tell you to experience the film for yourself.
By Nicholas Franco