Blood, Sweat, Yelling, and Drums: A Review of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash

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The Film: Whiplash
Director: Damien Chazelle
Primary Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
U.S. Release Date: 10 October 2014

Intro 
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer Andrew (Teller), his abusive teacher Fletcher (Simmons), and their respective attempts to achieve greatness and to make impressions on the other.

Whiplash is an intense and perfectly entertaining film that features solid performances from Simmons and Teller. That said, it is not a whole lot more than that and as such, is not as impactful as it could have been either. 

Plusy plus
Perhaps Whiplash‘s greatest general strengths are its intensity. The film is gripping and is filled with considerably more adrenaline than one might expect given it’s premise. Moreover, throughout the film, Chazelle deliberately calls attention to and asks viewers to look up the unpleasant (blood, sweat, saliva, and verbal abuse all included). There is a dark underbelly to greatness, and the film wants audiences to see that.

The film’s ending is one of the most tense sequences I’ve seen this year. With it’s final scenes, Whiplash makes it damn near impossible to look away; in those moments, the film holds viewers tightly by the shoulders and shakes them until they cannot see straight. 

Whiplash boasts strong performances from it’s two core cast members. Together, Teller and Simmons play two obsessive and inordinately intense men who both have their fair share of monstrous tendencies. 

I have never seen any of Teller’s previous work, but he does a good job of anchoring Whiplash. In particular, Teller quite skilfully navigates the two side of his character (On one hand, Andrew is timid and awkward. On the other he is relentless and even menacing). Teller’s performance isn’t mind-blowing, but it’s certainly good enough to convince me that he is a young actor worth keeping an eye on.

However, while Andrew is the “main character” of the film, it is Fletcher as portrayed by J.K. Simmons that audiences will remember. As the determined, manipulative, abusive, and obsessive Fletcher, Simmons is electric. True, his performance does get dangerously close to over kill land at times, but this is the writing’s fault, not Simmons’s. In fact, Simmons should be credited with managing to keep Fletcher interesting and complex without watering down just how nasty he can be. Thank’s to Simmons’s nuanced performance, even Fletcher’s most absurd over-the-top outbursts don’t manage to ruin the character. 

Whiplash is also a well-shot film. It’s not overly stylized, but the camera certainly works in it’s favor and does a good job of visually conveying and maintaining the intensity of the story. There is also a certain visual claustrophobia to the film which could be seen to mirror the mentalities of Andrew and Fletcher alike. It’s hardly every day time in this film, the sky is pretty much absent, and very rarely is anyone anywhere without music or musical instruments present in some way. This all keeps the film’s mood appropriately tense, narrowly focused, and a bit dark.

Minusy minus 
Perhaps my main issue with the film is that it just doesn’t manage to say that much. It’s watchable, it’s visceral, it’s gripping, but it doesn’t ask viewers to do nearly as much thinking for days and days afterwards as I would like. Sure, Fletcher’s “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job” is a memorable statement, but at film that lasts nearly two hours should leave viewers with more than that. 

Another rather noticeable problem with the film lies in it’s pacing and narrative structure. The film starts pretty well and it ends wonderfully, but there was a section in the middle that had me worried that it had run out of things to say and out of tricks to play. Whiplash lulls for longer than is ideal, nothing seems to happen for a while, and viewers are subjected to virtually the same scene one too many times. While Whiplash‘s strong final act does prevent narrative disaster, the possibility for such disaster should have never existed.

Though this film is filled with music and musicians, it isn’t really about music at all (and I don’t think it wants to be). Consequently, I couldn’t help but feel that some of the musical numbers in the the film (particularly in the middle of it) were too long. Cutting them down a bit would have given the filmmakers more opportunities to flesh out Miles’s character and to explore his motivations or to include dialogue designed to advance larger and more complex ideas. For me, such a move would have improved the film, but it does seem that many don’t share my sentiment, so it’s possible that I am being strangely picky here.

Lastly, the film’s only real female character (Benoist) is wasted, which is a real shame if you ask me. Her presence and story line aren’t particularly vital to the film and disappear from all relevance about midway through. She’s not written in a way that makes her memorable either. Also, why there is not a single female in Fletcher’s band is beyond me (Yes, he spews sexist and homophobic language every 2 minutes, but am I really supposed to believe that none of the female students at the conservatory are good enough to play for him?). I understand that many will have no problem with this aspect of the film, but I’m really tired of the white dick fest in Hollywood (Whiplash fails the Bechdel test quite royally).

To Sum Up
Whiplash is sort of like a really good sports movie but without the sports. (Or maybe it’s an army movie?). In the film, Chazelle explores teacher/student (and father/son) dynamics as well as the nature and the price of greatness in interesting and entertaining ways. That said, the film is more thrilling than life changing, and simply is not all that it could have been.

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. Feel free to let me know what you thought of Whiplash with a comment below.

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