Originally written April 1, 2015. Find the film here.
I saw Whiplash (2014) at the local discount cinema recently and literally left the theater breathless. I’ve been trying to figure out what I can write about on this blog, so I figured I should try blogging some thoughts about film, considering I love the art so much. So here we go, my most salient thoughts on the movie.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a gifted percussionist at Shaffer Conservatory who is obsessively driven to be the next drumming legend. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is a caustic, dictatorial conductor who runs the school’s studio band with an iron fist. What begins as a simple invitation to join the studio band, quickly spirals downward into a manipulative mentor-student relationship.
The physical abuse and emotional torment is difficult to watch. It’s painful; blood, sweat, and tears is not a cliche here. Fletcher is unrelenting with his verbal and physical attacks. But armed with an unyielding determination to be the best, the young drummer takes this vitriol as a challenge to emerge victorious. Most ordinary musicians would have given up – perhaps within a second of having a chair flung at their head.
Yet, because Andrew’s family belittles his choice to pursue music, Fletcher’s validation is all Andrew has. And for Fletcher, Andrew is his one chance to finally cultivate the next jazz legend. But he does not believe that coddling creates legends. Fletcher maintains that, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'” We need honest, healthy criticism to improve our art, but I wondered, where is that line between growth and destruction? How much is too much? Throughout the movie, I couldn’t answer that.
It’s unnerving to see that Andrew does improve. Not easily, but he does. Not only that, but he closes the movie with an absolutely perfect, electrifying drum cadenza where he flips the balance of power and forces Fletcher to adapt to his rhythm. The conclusion of the movie is terrifyingly ambiguous, but implies that the two men emerge as equals — almost ‘friendly’ collaborators. Whether all the abuse was worth it is probably up to individual discretion.
If anything, see the movie for its incredibly musical audio and visual editing. Blisteringly quick, staccato edits heighten the percussive nature of the film. The drumset becomes a visual barometer for Andrew’s mental state, the energy and buzz of the shots crescendo and decrescendo with his emotions. And although the movie is filled with sound, there are very masterful uses of silence that are ironically, deafeningly powerful. The film is a cacophonous duet between these two individuals, each with their own personal sound… the result: a masterwork of percussive aural and visual frenzy that critically examines the pursuit of greatness.
On a personal note, I used to be deathly afraid of my orchestra conductors in high school. In retrospect, now they feel like corgis.