Whiplash (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Whiplash (2014)

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Andrew spends his nights practicing the drums and hopes to be the next jazz legend.  One day, he is hand-picked by Terence, the head of the school jazz ensemble and a merciless teacher.  Is this what Andrew really wants, or will his attempt at becoming one of the greats be what kills him?  Damien Chazelle writes and directs Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.

Loneliness of the long-distance player"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job."

Andrew (Miles Teller) sits at the end of a long hallway bathed in white, glistening from hard work and emanating a glow which separates him from the darkness.  Unmistakably, this is our hero.  But the heavens don't part for Andrew's good work.  All that goodness and pure talent does is summon the devil.  Terence (J.K. Simmons) is not attracted to his aura, or the sweat that shows he's working hard, but for the double-time swing we hear and feel before we even see Andrew.

Terence is the devil.  He pushes his players beyond their physical and emotional limits with little concern to what it will do to their lives.  God doesn't emerge from the dark to recognize Andrew's hard work and save because if it wasn't for the devil we wouldn't get anything done.  Bathed in yellow and black, the colors of a hornet, he hounds Andrew to the very ends of his physical abilities.  There are only two ways this can end - suicide or transcendence.

Whiplash is not a movie about good men, but it is about men with the potential to be great.  There is no room for women in Whiplash, no place to feel sentimental, and certainly no room for self-pity.  It takes place in an unabashedly masculine realm where Terence's muscles and screaming face are the only forces that peek out from the darkness.  If Andrew wants to escape his world of shadows and into the pantheon of greatness it is through this evil man.  Their struggle results in one of the most confident and thrilling films of the decade.

Terence is an evil man, and the damage he does to his students is never under question. But does the world need people like Terence to advance?

Terence is an evil man, and the damage he does to his students is never under question. But does the world need people like Terence to advance?

The world of Whiplash speaks to Andrew's desperation to escape.  He wanders through a city of people who can't escape their surroundings, trapped in a forever broken world in need of repair, who have become vague outlines against hazy windows.  Director Damien Chazelle shows Andrew's disconnect from this purgatory during his first practice session.  Andrew takes in the environment, the camera cuts to close-ups of loved ones caressing, raises the volume on friends greeting one another, all while Andrew observes them as though they were insects.  Chazelle's opening misled us.  Andrew is not a hero, but someone who sees little value in the social interaction of his band and is interested in them solely as a means to move forward.

Any doubt about the strength of Whiplash's production design is put to immediate rest as soon as we enter Terence's dungeon.  The first practice room was warm and neutral, windows to the outside let in some natural light, and Andrew's classmates dressed to match.  Andrew retains some of that warmth when he first enters the dungeon, a black and queasily yellow space with wood-paneled walls that remind the occupants they are stuck here with Terence.  Sometimes Andrew will get a reminder of the warmth which exists outside those walls, either via his well-meaning father (Paul Reiser) or that cute Nicole (Melissa Benoist), but they are just obstacles.

Chazelle, who also wrote the screenplay, shows little interest in defining anyone by whether they are good or bad but whether they can contribute to Andrew's greatness or not.  Terence speaks in sexist rants, screaming homophobic and racist slurs at his students, and generally proves it is possible to be a person who can hate everyone equally - but he gets results.  That's more than can be said of Andrew's meek and overly polite father, who cares so little about Andrew's feelings he doesn't even notice what Andrew likes or dislikes when they go to the theater together.  More complex is Andrew's relationship with Nicole.  Andrew senses her weakness but still tries to date her to fulfill an ideal that doesn't fit him and, in a scene which might have been heartbreaking if it weren't correct, he calculates how long it would take before he completely breaks Nicole based on the miniscule patience he has with his prideful family.  It doesn't matter if any of this is the "wrong" thing to do, only whether the experience can build Andrew up or not.

With its black and yellow color palate, intense camera work, and morally queasy protagonist, Chazelle shows he's more interested in making a great film than a fun one.  Cinematographer Sharone Meir keeps the visuals working on a visceral level.  Closeups of Andrew's bleeding hand cut into intense shallow focus of drum sticks and music.  Even when the camera pulls back we see the lighting and stages are built to show Andrew and Terence floating in the darkness.  Their rivalry is all there is because it's the only way either will prove their worth to the world.  As their struggle grew I realized how rare it is to find a movie with this level of clarity as most are too obsessed with making their characters "relatable".

Music is a multi-edged weapon in Whiplash. It lets Andrew fight against his classist family, it sharpens Terence's students, and in one thrilling smash cut it becomes a literal physical force in battle.

Music is a multi-edged weapon in Whiplash. It lets Andrew fight against his classist family, it forges Terence's students, and in one thrilling smash cut it becomes a literal physical force in battle.

Simmons is getting a lot of praise because of his work in Whiplash and, while it is impressive, it's because he's given all the juicy lines.  Teller has the grueling task of carrying the movie physically and emotionally, a task that shows how often performers fall short of greatness because they aren't suited to their roles.  His good looks disarm the audience so when he finally steps up to the kit we see not a boy with a bright future ahead of him, but a young man with his own devil inside.  Chazelle switches to a Kubrickian shot of Teller glaring at Simmons just under his brow during these moments as his face devolves with his body into a violent dervish.  Simmons has and will likely continue to get all the awards for Whiplash, but the impact belongs to Teller.

Surprisingly, the crux of the film falls on Reiser's meek shoulders.  Reiser is not a great performer by most metrics, and here he has very little to do, but he caps off the four or so scenes he is in with the most important shot of Whiplash.  He and his son are separated by talent and drive, something Chazelle visualizes by keeping Reiser just outside of a cracked open door.  When you get to this moment, pay attention to Reiser's expression.  Here is a man who realizes he is nothing compared his son, and is witnessing the greatness he failed at so many times in his life.

Considering the immense success and subject of Whiplash, Chazelle may have set an impossible bar for him to clear with his next film.  But whatever demon drove Chazelle away from jazz and into the world of cinema needs to be thanked.  Without that drive, Chazelle would not have created this frenzied, violent and transcendent experience.  The world needs demons like Terence and Andrew, just like it needs Whiplash.

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Tail - WhiplashWhiplash (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, and Melissa Benoist.

Posted by Andrew

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