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Whiplash - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews — LiveJournal
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-

How can a movie about a drummer be so good? Especially one with a story so simple, yet told with such precision and sophistication? Of all instruments a protagonist could play, the drum set is probably what most would consider the least cinematic. There's nothing romantic about it.

There's nothing romantic about Whiplash, either, what with its pathological rivalry between a detestably sadistic music teacher and an obsessively driven student. Fletcher, played with unsettling intensity and unpredictability by J.K. Simmons, is warm one moment, and vein-bugling with rage the next ten. It's been a while since a character in the movies has been so easy to hate, and yet with just enough humanity to make you unsure if he's really deserving of that hatred.

Fletcher teaches at a college that wins jazz competitions and thus, according to him, spits out some of the world's best young musicians. In the opening scene, he discovers 19-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller, last seen as a lead in the sweet Spectacular Now), and his manipulations begin instantly.

There's a strategy here, you see. But there's also a question, a bit of a moral dilemma, regarding whether there's a line that can be crossed when it comes to pushing students to motivate them. Should a teacher be blamed for causing the anxiety that leads another student to commit suicide, or should said student, apparently "a beautiful player," be blamed for being weak? Whiplash clearly doesn't want us to believe the latter, yet it exists in a gray area with direct pathways to such places.

And that's what makes this a great movie. It's hard to stop thinking about, even if one wonders about the merits of some dialogue choices. Simmons verbally and emotionally beats down his students, cultivating their defiant dedication to craft through humiliation. This involves a lot of language meant to be emasculating, including several instances of gay slurs. There's some definitive discomfort here, especially considering the large number of black kids in his class. Not once does he use any racial slurs, because we all know that not only would a teacher in his position never get away with such a thing, neither would this movie. Somehow, the homophobic language gets a pass.

On the other hand, Simmons plays Fletcher with such pitch perfection that it all somehow feels appropriate in story and context. This guy may feel like he's helping these students, but he's still a consummate asshole. And he does more than yell terrible things at them: he blithely manipulates them emotionally (he finds out Andrew's mother left him as a child, only to bring it up regularly to get to him); at one point he even hurls a chair at his head.

Andrew, for his part, responds just as Fletcher wants him to: with a burning desire to prove the worth that Fletcher keeps saying he doesn't have. This response is inconsistent, though, because naturally his faith in himself goes up and down. There are moments when it seems like Fletcher and Adrew are enemies forever, and others when they seem to reconcile. Never are these scenarios quite what they seem.

Miles Teller does all his own drumming, and he is a marvel in the role. Those are real blisters, and even some of his own blood, you see on his hands. So yes, there's a lot of drums in Whiplash (named after the title of a song, incidentally, with a particularly challenging drum part). Of all the instruments, drums might not be a lot of people's thing. This is a movie, however, that transcends the instrument. It could have been anything. This is all about the teacher and the student. Even Teller's increasingly concerned dad (a rather subdued Paul Reiser) is ultimately incidental. Not even a brief attempt at keeping a girlfriend can keep Andrew from his singular drive.

And that's what it all comes down to: Andrew's obsessive drive in the face of Fletcher's demand for perfection. Fletcher makes all kinds of decisions, a great many of them manipulative tricks, that make you want to punch him in his smug face. And that is precisely what he's there for, to keep Andrew thinking he has something to prove, until indeed he does. But this movie ends with an important question: is it, is Fletcher himself, worth it? The fact that writer-director Damien Chazelle keeps us considering after the credits role is the mark of great film making.


Overall: A
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