The experience of watching “Whiplash” feels a lot like putting a rubber band on your wrist and slowly continuing to pull it back slowly: The tension rises to exceedingly uncomfortable levels and you never know when it might break or snap back at you. It felt like a precisely-orchestrated 107 minute anxiety assault. This is a praise.
Shot in an unprecedented 19 days, “Whiplash” is a musical-based drama starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle and follows a young and fiercely dedicated jazz drummer named Andrew Neyman (Teller). As a first year at Shaffer Music Conservatory, one of the top music schools in the nation, Neyman makes the prestigious jazz ensemble led by Terrence Fletcher (Simmons), who is known for his unorthodox methods of teaching which includes verbally, mentally and sometimes physically abusing his students.
Inspired by Chazelle’s experience in a rigorous jazz ensemble, the edgy film scored high in many areas.
Both Teller and Simmons deliver captivating performances, which breathed life into the character dynamic between the two, thus fostering the main strength of the film.
In fact, the plot-driving character dynamic between Neyman and Fletcher was so focused on, there was no depth to the story. It was a unidimensional and linear storytelling experience.
This hardly seemed like a fault though considering it seemed like Chazelle’s whole intent to develop a character-driven plot that focuses on an escalating conflict between two intense personalities. We see the hyper-focused Neyman abort a romantic relationship and neglect social interactions in his pushing-the-boundaries-of-psychotic attempt to meet his goals in order to avoid repeating his father’s failure as a writer.
Fletcher’s inhumane methods of pushing Neyman to the edge seems so obviously the workings of an irrational antagonist, but then we shiver as the audience is confronted with the feeling that his methods are arguably justified to a certain degree. His ruthless instruction is driven by his firm belief that if he doesn’t push people to their absolute hardest, he may be depriving the world of the next Buddy Rich, one of the greatest drummers of all time. It’s terrifying watching him maliciously degrade his musicians and immediately follow him sweetly conversing with a little girl.
My fingernails were digging into the theatre’s arm rest during the scene when Fletcher takes to slapping Neyman as he counts in four to demonstrate the difference between rushing and dragging the tempo.
Between the harsher moments of icing bloodied hands and hurling chairs at heads, there are lighter moments of humor; we can’t help but to laugh at Fletcher’s crude, yet clever insults.
The directing is stylishly executed with uncomfortable close ups of blood dripping onto cymbals during the pulse-pounding jazz pieces to emphasize the tense tone of the film. Additionally, the tense tone in each scene was held so well due to the film’s tight editing, which has earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Editing.
In an interview with thedissolve.com, Chazelle explained that he wanted the audience to feel that at times, Neyman was just a push away from drumming himself into a heart attack. This was absolutely felt in the scenes when Neyman desperately tried to match Fletcher’s expectations on the fast tempo. Watching Neyman force himself to breakneck speeds with sweat cascading down his face and onto the drums and then punching his bloody hands through the snare drum was stressful to say the least.
“The idea of art being something that kills is weirdly fascinating to me,” said Chazelle.
It was engrossing to watch this young musician and his sadistic teacher’s character dynamic come to a staggering and satisfying close in the epic finale after Neyman struggles with the ultimate question in his life: is the pursuit and achievement of artistic greatness worth any cost?
“Whiplash” is up for five Oscars including Best Picture. It will be available on DVD on Feb. 24.