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Worth A Look: 10.34%
Average: 3.45%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 10.34%

3 reviews, 11 user ratings

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by Brett Gallman

"Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Being an Asshole"
5 stars

When we reflect on the people who have truly impacted our lives, I’m guessing most of us are quick to honor the kind folks who nurtured us and our talents. Like Proust once said, these happy people are “the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” A nice, flowery sentiment, to be sure, but what about the complete assholes in our lives? You know, the people who either showed us what not to be or who pushed us to be something great simply to spite them? Sometimes, they deserve their due. This brings us to “Whiplash,” a great film about assholes.

In a concerted effort to obliterate the notion that films must revolve around “likeable characters,” Damien Chazelle pits two abrasive personalities against each other and has them grate until they produce a harmony. It’s jazz re-imagined as a contentious teacher-student relationship. When we meet the latter, we’re inclined to think that 19-year-old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is just an especially ambitious drummer attending a prestigious New York conservatory. An opening shot draws us into his after-hours routine of drumming alone in solitude and finds a rhythm that’s interrupted by the intrusion of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s notoriously intense core band instructor.

Like any effective prelude, the exchange sets the tone for “Whiplash.” You somehow sense that this isn’t going to end well, not when Fletcher exits the scene without so much as a cursory glance or anything. Even when he later storms into Andrew’s class and plucks him to join his elite band, it’s ominous: typically, this is the moment of triumph, but this instance is undercut by the feeling that Andrew has stepped into something he doesn’t quite comprehend. You’re inclined to react the same way you might when a character in a horror movie enters a dark room, oblivious that a monster waits around the corner.

What’s remarkable is how economically Chazelle suggests this. Some of the other students speak about Fletcher in hushed tones, and a conversation between Andrew and his dad (Paul Reiser) makes it clear that this guy is a Very Big Deal at the conservatory. However, his being a complete and utter asshole is communicated solely by the way Simmons carries himself. Everything about Fletcher is precise and terrifying, from his causal greetings (“good morning, cocksuckers” is a particular gem) to the way his pupils stand at attention as if R. Lee Ermey walked into the room. Comparing Fletcher to a drill sergeant seems obvious, but I think even some drill sergeants might think he goes a little too far. John Milius probably couldn’t even script this guy from his wildest dreams.

Chazelle scripts some broad notes (like Fletcher flinging a cymbal right at Andrew’s face) to reveal just how demented he is, but it’s Simmons’s sly, conniving demeanor that makes him an indelible villain. Some of the quieter beats allow him to climb inside of the skin of a master manipulator, like a relaxed scene where he shows interest in Andrew’s life and encourages him to just “have fun.” It suggests that his usual behavior is some kind of insane performance art. A few minutes later, he’s berating him with the same information he just gleaned from his new pupil (or latest victim, if we’re honest). Simmons’s preternatural ability to turn on a dime brings this monster to life.

He’s also crafts a character that’s more than just a monster. “Whiplash” hinges on the idea that anyone would want to please this abusive, calculating shithead. I don’t know that you’d call it sympathy for the devil, but Simmons finds depths that at least allow you to understand Fletcher’s twisted worldview. The antithesis of what I’d consider an upright mentor, he has no use for the phrase “nice job” and believes true greatness has to extracted from someone in the same manner diamonds are formed: with immense pressure and heat. When he eventually explains this, it’s not some macho villain posturing bullshit but rather the confessions of a man who genuinely wants to produce a musical genius. It’s slightly bone-chilling but somehow reasonable because Simmons lets his guard down just enough to reveal the fragments of a broken man behind the monstrous mask.

Andrew, then, is something of a guinea pig who eventually dares to become a predator himself. Teller is terrific in breaking from the niche he’s worked in for the past few years. There’s a hint of the smarmy, cocksure guy he’s brought to the screen lately, but he channels that energy a bit differently here. He feels more vulnerable and insecure, at least initially. Part of the horror here is watching Andrew become Fletcher’s ideal student not only by shedding blood, sweat, and tears but also by alienating everyone around him, including the girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) he suddenly has no time for. What good is achieving greatness if it means becoming as insufferable as the prick who expects you to bleed all over your drum kit?

“Whiplash” doesn’t really have an answer, and I love it for that. I especially love how it dances right around the question and resists the urge to resort to moralizing. It’s a movie where two jerks lock orbits and get exactly what they deserve: each other. Chazelle fashions the film into an unexpected thriller, with Andrew and Fletcher exchanging passive-aggressive blows before graduating to a full-blown cat-and-mouse game. It becomes a jazz school thriller in every respect, as staccato rhythms and frenzied camerawork bring the proceedings to a ferocious, exhausting crescendo.

In its climactic moments, “Whiplash” offers catharsis in its purest form—not in what its characters teach us, but in what they reveal to us about the ecstasy of losing yourself to a moment of sheer expression. It’s equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, and watching Simmons and Teller become possessed is transcendent. By the end, they’ve become devils, and the film fittingly leaves viewers wondering if it’s all worthwhile.

You don’t know what’s to become of either of these two—only that they’ve made art out of being complete and total assholes towards each other. That says a lot about them, but it implies even more about what it means to be great.

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originally posted: 02/06/15 11:23:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2014 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/28/17 Ken Extremely well-done! 5 stars
2/13/17 morris campbell very good 4 stars
12/02/15 Bents Very Good - kinda like the 'Black Swan' of ultra competitive jazz 4 stars
6/17/15 Leep In Well acted, well put together, solid but nothing more 3 stars
2/15/15 guena fucking shit 1 stars
2/10/15 LANGANO One of the best of the year. 5 stars
2/08/15 russel united states 1 stars
2/08/15 Ricky Brown Good Stuff 5 stars
1/19/15 David just brilliant ! 5 stars
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  10-Oct-2014 (R)



Directed by
  Damien Chazelle

Written by
  Damien Chazelle

  Miles Teller
  JK Simmons

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