Silver Screen: Whiplash *****
You can call off the Oscars— cancel the caterer, get the limo deposit back, tell Gwyneth Paltrow she can eat carbs again. The best movie of 2014 has already been determined, and it is Whiplash.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s breakout feature packs the intensity of a war film into a taut, laser-focused indie drama about jazz musicians battling for supremacy at an elite New York conservatory. There’s no murder, no gunplay, almost no violence of any kind, yet Whiplash plays like an edge-of-your-seat thriller disguised as an arthouse musing about the demands of creativity and the corrosiveness of ambition.
The talented young Miles Teller (Spectacular Now, Divergent) stars as Andrew, a drumming prodigy driven to extremes not just to become great, but to “become one of the greats” like his idol, Buddy Rich. He practices with a boxer’s grim determination, sweating through shirts and bleeding through Band-Aids as he tests himself against obscure techniques and time signatures in the hope of impressing the school’s star teacher, tyrannical bandleader Fletcher Cox (J.K. Simmons).
In a key early scene, after inducting Andrew into his band as an alternate, Fletcher takes the boy aside and asks about his personal life. Andrew confides his troubled family history, only to see every detail of his childhood turned into a weapon against him as Fletcher goes on a screaming tirade. Not since R. Lee Ermey inducted newbies into Marine basic training in Full Metal Jacket has someone found such poetry in profanity-laced insults, bellowed at top volume. There may be a method to Fletcher’s madness, however, and Chazelle regards his fanatical dedication to perfection with equal parts awe and terror.
Whiplash is primarily concerned with the question, “What is good enough— and is there such a thing?” Andrew is presented with several different models of success. His new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) is happy despite her aimless studies and uncertainty about her career path. His supportive single father (Paul Reiser) is a beloved high-school English teacher. But Andrew, driven by a mania for jazz drumming, is drawn to Fletcher’s zeal not just to be the best, but to entirely reconfigure the conception of what the best can be.
What sacrifices are necessary to achieve such lofty goals remain for Andrew to discover. Chazelle has a deep understanding of the labyrinthine complexities that lurk within insular worlds and subcultures. Andrew can’t hide his disdain at a family dinner when his cousin brags about his college-football exploits. “Yeah, Division III,” he sneers, infuriated by the larger culture’s lack of appreciation for the depths of his dedication. Inside these tiny worlds, priorities are warped like figures in a funhouse mirror.
Andrew could easily come off as unlikable, but Teller finds deep reserves of sympathy for a young man who has dedicated his entire life to a single, largely solitary pursuit, and who now faces the terrifying possibility that he’s discovered the upper limits of his talent. His antagonistic mentor Fletcher is either trying to push him to a new level or break him entirely, and their duel of wits and words is as fiery a conflict as you’ll see onscreen. They savage each other with words— like many of the best David Mamet plays, the quips and rejoinders hit with the impact of bullets— but cannot help but be drawn to each other’s devotion to craft.
Whiplash is brilliantly conceived and almost perfectly realized. Chazelle establishes his characters quickly but is willing to linger on a handful of long scenes that make up the bulk of the movie. It all leads up to a sly, shocking climax that’s equal parts disturbing and inspiring. (It earns a place in the all-time top-ten best final scenes of any modern American movie.) Chazelle is equally willing to make assertions and pose further questions, and as such Whiplash’s ambiguities never feel coy or unsatisfying. It’s a movie that lingers in the mind for days afterwards, propelled by a rollicking jazz soundtrack and a pair of brilliant, oppositional performances.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.