Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
When do the ends stop justifying the means? If you shape a young talent into a star, but crush his spirit in the process, is his ascension to that next plateau still a win? Damien Chezelle's Whiplash is the story of an abusive relationship, but it's also a story about the atmosphere and attitudes that foster that kind of abuse and enshrine the abuser in a position of institutional power. The result is a brutal duet played out between actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and a story with madness at its core, the madness of men so driven towards the highest level of achievement that they're willing to destroy themselves and others to get there. It is a film of sometimes unbearable emotional intensity and so tightly coiled for so much of its running time that when it finally and fully explodes in its finale, it leaves you breathless.
Andrew Nieman (Teller), a drummer at the premiere music school in the United States, is not the typical hero for this type of story. He is not a genius waiting to be discovered, but an adequate musician who has seemingly gotten into the school by the skin of his teeth, dreaming of becoming one of the greats but painfully aware that he is seen as a bottom tier talent by the rest of his classmates. While practicing at the school, he attracts the attention of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), a conductor at the school whose legend looms large over the entire institution and under whose gaze students tend to cower for fear of his reputation. Seemingly unimpressed by what he's seen and heard, Fletcher walks out while Andrew is still playing for him but later seeks Andrew out, plucking him out of his class and inviting him to join the studio band that Fletcher conducts as the new alternate drummer. Andrew is thrilled and the invitation gives him a new confidence in all aspects of his life, but once he actually gets into Fletcher's class he learns that the man teaches by completely breaking down every player under his guidance. When Fletcher enters the room, every member of the band casts his eyes downwards, silently praying that he won't become the focus of Fletcher's attention. Andrew does not, at first, count himself among them and believes that because Fletcher is a genius, he's seen something in Andrew that no one else can. Andrew thinks he's been chosen because he's special and, for a moment, Fletcher encourages that notion by engaging with him in a deceptively supportive way. The seeming gentleness that Fletcher displays at first, however, quickly reveals itself to be insincere, and by the time Andrew realizes that he's become a mouse being batted about by a cat, it's too late: he's trapped and his torture is just beginning.
What follows is a systematically escalating process of mental, emotional, and physical abuse. Fletcher humiliates Andrew in class, reducing him to tears and tearing away at whatever sense of confidence Andrew has. Later, after Carl (Nate Lang), the core drummer, falls out of Fletcher's favor, Andrew is promoted and allowed to build his confidence back up slightly, only to have the rug pulled out from under him again when Fletcher calls up Ryan (Austin Stowell), the core drummer in Andrew's former class, to join the studio band. Fletcher, knowing that Ryan's presence will trigger Andrew's feelings of low self-worth, praises Ryan as a means of passive aggressively picking at Andrew, and then turns on Ryan, too, forcing the three drummers to participate in an epic contest for the right to be the band's core drummer. After several hours, all three men are exhausted, drenched in sweat, and bleeding all over the drum kit and Andrew emerges as the "winner" and is granted the opportunity to play in the band's upcoming concert. When the concert day comes, however, everything that can go wrong for Andrew does and he ends up in a position where his future as a drummer is in question. Broken by his experiences with Fletcher, Andrew finds himself at loose ends. In order to be healthy, he needs to step away from music, but his devotion to drumming has taken over his entire life and he has sacrificed everything in pursuit of it. Without drumming, there's not much there, and so when a second chance presents itself he can't help but take it, even if it means giving up what little he has left.
As heartbreaking as it ultimately is, Whiplash is a beautifully crafted character study. Its depiction of Andrew as a young man vulnerable to being preyed upon is strong and compelling, brought to life as much by what is explicitly stated within the story as by what is left more to suggestion. Though Andrew has a strong relationship with his father (Paul Reiser), he's a very lonely person, seen walking through the halls of his dormitory unacknowledged by anyone else, quietly slipping into his room while a party goes on next door. In class he sits by himself, trying not to listen while other students praise Ryan by telling him how he's a much better drummer than Andrew, and he longs for recognition and praise. When he thinks that he's found that with Fletcher, he wastes no time in opening up to the older man, immediately embracing him as a mentor only to have the information that he's revealed in confidence turned back on him as a means of public humiliation. As brutal as Fletcher is, the film draws Andrew clearly enough that we can understand why he can't just walk away. He's psychologically trapped in this relationship, unable to break out of the mindset that he needs to gain Fletcher's approval and that if he just works harder and sacrifices more, he'll get it. Andrew's reluctance to acknowledge that he's a victim of abuse (due, no doubt, to the stigma attached to being a male victim of abuse) means that no matter how badly Fletcher treats him, Andrew can't really bring himself to see Fletcher as a villain or as someone whose approval he shouldn't continue to seek. While Whiplash is certainly, to an extent, about how a blind passion for something can drive a person to extremes in its pursuit, it is much more effective as a portrait of how an abusive relationship is developed and how an abuser is able to sustain their hold over their victim in a bond which may not be breakable except by death.
Teller, an actor whose star has been on the rise since last year's The Spectacular Now, delivers a nakedly vulnerable and ultimately very powerful performance which sees his character surrendering to his stronger "mentor" even at the moment of his greatest triumph. As the mentor, Simmons takes a character who might have amounted to nothing but a monster and gives him enough shading that it becomes clear that he himself is psychologically broken, albeit in a very different way from the victims he leaves behind. Like Andrew, Fletcher longs for greatness, but in his case his dream isn't to become a well-regarded musician (he's already achieved that), but to create the next game changing genius, to shape a nascent talent and turn him into a star. At times Fletcher's guard drops and it is clear that he understands, on some level, that he is a force of destruction rather than creation, but he just can't let go of that drive and that belief that he needs to take a person and push them beyond their limits in order to make them great. Simmons plays this man not just as a character, but as a presence. When he enters a scene, he doesn't even need to say anything; his dominance is clear just through the attitude that he exudes. Fletcher is a terrifying character, made all the more so by the fact that he's not some horror movie cartoon, but a man who could exist in the real world, believing that he's doing good by being evil.
Whiplash is well directed by Chazelle who, not unlike Fletcher within the story, keeps pushing his characters beyond what should be their breaking points, and continuously builds on the story's tension. There are moments when the story edges towards going over the top, such as when it depicts the series of misfortunes that Andrew undergoes the day of the concert, and I'm of two minds about the ending, but ultimately so much about the film works that any flaws it may have seem very small. Whiplash can be a difficult film to watch, but it's also a rich and dramatically rewarding one.