TIFF 2014: Whiplash – Film Review

Director: Damien Chazelle
Actors: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Country: USA
Runtime: 106 min
Rating: 14A

When two passionate actors are cast opposite one another and forced to go head to head, sparks will always fly. In the incredible new film Whiplash (2014), director Damien Chazelle sets young star-on-the-rise Miles Teller against seasoned professional J.K. Simmons. The result is a film that nearly crackles with tension and is sure to leave an audience breathless until its musical conclusion of massive proportions.

Whiplash

Young jazz drumming prodigy Andrew Neyman (Teller) is passionate about his instrument. Studying under the highly respected yet greatly feared instructor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), Andrew will do anything to secure the core drummer position, including practicing until his fingers are raw and bloodied. Andrew soon realizes that Fletcher more than lives up to his harsh reputation, as his brutal and intimidating instructive techniques reduce more than one instrumentalist to tears. Fletcher is willing to do whatever it takes to bring out the best in his musicians, and the best is exactly what Andrew aspires to be. Their partnership is far from ideal, however, and the rivalry escalates until it can do nothing but explode.

Both lead actors Teller and Simmons deliver fiery performances from which it is impossible to look away. Teller holds his own against his experienced counterpart, embracing the literal pain that is often a major part of his incredible passion. Although one can sense the rage that is kept bottled up inside of Andrew, Teller is also able to masterfully display a gentler side in his initial interactions with a sweet girlfriend, showing great versatility and allowing the film to achieve an ideal balance between intense and watchable. Simmons’ character is shockingly vicious, yet his endless barbs are nothing short of hilarious and prompt self-conscious laughter at every turn. The combination of a positively electric screenplay and Simmons’ perfectly timed delivery results in a highly memorable and villainous character.

Whiplash

Director Chazelle shoots his film to represent the rhythms of the jazz music on which it focuses. The cinematography is frenzied and hectic, reflecting the emotions of the characters and the feelings evoked in them by the ever-present music. Chazelle is able to get inside the anatomy of a jazz band by using extreme close-up shots of the instruments and the students preparing to play them. Even a listener who is not familiar with jazz music can be drawn into it due to his engaging techniques that use shifting camera focus to guide our attention and explain every nuance of the art.

Not since the film Billy Elliot way back in 2000 have I found a character for whom I was rooting as hard as I was for Andrew, a young man full of talent, anger, and enormous potential. His relationship with Teller as both embark on a search for perfection is one of the most electric pairings in recent memory, and one cannot help but wonder if they clash because they are so very alike. The film feels almost like an art house work, and stands out due to its unusual lighting and camera angles, but should maintain mainstream appeal with its incredible lead actors, biting screenplay, and easily accessible storyline. Indeed, it could even be said that this dark and funny film cracks as sharp as a whip.