To be one of the greats
As Whiplash approaches its third act climax, the protagonist asks the antagonist “Isn’t there a line?” It’s a fair question, and one that participating viewers should ask themselves throughout a screening of director Damien Chazelle’s (writer of Grand Piano and The Last Exorcist Part II) most recent film. Intense performances from up-and-coming lead Miles Teller (Divergent, That Awkward Moment) and menacing J.K. Simmons (the Spider-Man trilogy, Burn After Reading) take strong writing and terrific filmmaking to an Oscar tier. Although over-the-top at times with its characters and situations, Whiplash succeeds in becoming one of 2014’s most captivating motion pictures with compelling instrumental (particularly the drums) sequences. For a movie shot in 19 days, there isn’t much to be desired with its long, dramatic shots and well-paced storytelling. It’s a film sure to be special for conservatory students all over the world.
Whiplash follows Andrew (Teller), a first-year student at a prestigious conservatory practicing the drums. His supportive father (Paul Reiser- Life After Beth, “Mad About You”) often visits him for movies in the theater and in the home. His mother left many years ago, which seems to answer for his inadequacy in every female interaction and why he’s desperate for the approval of the most successful male figure in his life, his teacher/ composer (Simmons). Despite playing a young prodigy with the world for the taking, Teller creates a complex, tragic drummer in his performance. Teller would find his name in the thick of the Oscar hunt any other year, but several powerhouse performances dominate the leading man category this season and Simmons steals the scene from him every time he walks into frame.
J.K. Simmons has a solid background and reputation as a comedic character actor famous for his roles in The First Wives Club, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Juno, Burn After Reading, Jennifer’s Body, Extract, and The Ladykillers. At times the thesp has taken on supporting dramatic roles, however, never has he given a performance of this degree. Simmons’s name now tops the favorite list in the supporting actor category at the 2015 Academy Awards for playing the brilliantly bi-polar music instructor. The actor brings a violent, upsetting presence to Whiplash that completely separates him from his plugs on television for a large insurance company. A good film must follow the terms set forth by a villain (The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back) and Simmons’ terms as Fletcher keep the audience invested in Andrew as he spirals downward into his teacher’s games.
Unfortunately, Simmons can be the film’s undoing just as much as he’s responsible for its success. Fletcher is a downright bad character, toying with the emotions of impressionable, young kids as if they were pawns in his search to advance himself into legendary status all in the name of pushing his students to play at their best. Fletcher shoots nasty misogynistic and homophobic phrases in public as if there weren’t any consequences (most of the time there aren’t). If Fletcher were a character in the real world, shouldn’t he have been destroyed in the media by this point? But in these days of the Bill Cosby rape allegations, perhaps it is believable that Fletcher’s tyranny runs rampant for as long as it does in Whiplash. At one point, a character walks away from a brutal, bloody car accident in order to please Fletcher—perhaps too far-fetched? Believe the blood, however—that’s Teller bleeding for real for your viewing pleasure.
Despite some rather unlikely moments, director Chazelle presents an interesting story of a young man’s journey to break out of his mentor’s mental grasp while trying to simultaneously learn from the same character. Character actor J.K. Simmons will surely join another tier of the acting community with an assured Oscar-nomination for his performance as the sadistic, sabotaging Fletcher. Whiplash hasn’t received a lot of box office love, but critical acclaim and strong word-of-mouth may open the film up to other award races such as Best Motion Picture of the Year.