When looking back on 2014 in film, Whiplash may very well go down as one of the most remembered. A sleeper held by Sony all year, gradually building momentum, it joins the ranks of films like Gone Girl and Boyhood that capture the zeitgeist in their own ways. Whilst the other two focus on the effect the media shared experience have on life, Whiplash, in an age of helicopter parents and children merely seen as clay to be moulded, focuses on an ultimate question with no easy answers – how far is too far?
Now of course, pushy adults who are living vicariously through the young people they come into contact with isn’t anything new. Hell, a million films have been made about it, ranging from ballet to academics and everything in between. We see it every day, adults terrified of failure throwing children into things that they have no interest in. In Whiplash, however, first-time feature writer and director Damien Chazelle takes on the notion of living vicariously through someone through a different lens, reversing the roles and doubling them up. Slowly winding the tension up until the strings snap off, the result is an enthralling and intensity physical character study.
Chazelle’s narrative is centred on Andrew (Miles Teller), a presumably recent high school graduate that is journeying into the real world of for the first time, thrown to the wolves at an intensely passionate music school. Andrew’s father is a failed writer turned high school teacher, and his mother left when he was a child. As a result of his fathers unrealised dreams and his mothers absence, it’s Andrew that’s afraid of failure and pushes himself to oblivion, wanting nothing more than to be a drummer. It’s a full-bodied ambition, one of painful passion and anguish.
At the school is our pushy adult, who goes by the name of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Presumably harbouring some dashed dreams of being a musician and a lot of anger, he’s seen this before. Lulling Andrew into a false sense of security by offering him a place in his coveted band, he taps into his fears, his want for people to notice him and his penchant to do whatever he has to do, and pushes him to the limit. The obsession and abuse that transpires spirals to ultimate self-destruction.
Lensed in muted browns and golds that only intensify the hot stage lights, the first noticeable emotions of Whiplash is crippling pain and fear. Sweat drips off white t-shirts and brows laboriously, exacerbated through stark plain, sparse surroundings. The spaces may be closed off but that only makes it more cagey and inescapable.
J.K. Simmons’s Fletcher is a character of incredible depth. Chazelle is unwilling to reduce him simply to a cartoonish, one dimensional villain. He wears a black t-shirt that doesn’t show sweat, an unbreakable resolve. Chazelle chooses to show softer moments, glimmers of humanity that only make the chilling tirades more terrifying. He’s a character of complex questions and motivations – is what he’s doing a sick test to see how committed they are or intense training for the cutthroat world of music? Is it taking advantage of their fear? Is it abusing someone or helping them?
Chazelle’s narrative is one of exceptionally tight, perfect timing. Not a beat is off, every scene leads to the next, building to a cathartic, showstopping crescendo. It’s an exercise in precision. Chazelle’s writing and direction is wound so tight from the outset, only being wound tighter as the speed of the drum roll intensifies, infusing the film with a buzzing, palpable intensity. Every beat missed by the characters is as clear as a drop of blood on a white bandage, only adding to the tension for fear of what will happen as a result.
Above all, Whiplash is a story of fear, presented through Andrews’ eyes. Miles Teller possesses a unique charisma, and it’s put to use here. It’s the worst kind of fear, where the victim has lost control, hypnotised by an abuser time and time again. Fletcher makes Andrew forget how terrified he makes him for a moment because he makes him feel like he’s been given exactly what he wants. Of course, then he rips it away again.
Whiplash is mesmerising and intensely focused. With a firm grip on the tension, it is both exhilarating and terrifying, giving off the same metallic shiver as piano strings.