by Philip Price
The amount of self-inflicted sacrifice is intended to shape and deliver who we want to be. In certain areas there has to be some level of talent involved, in others it simply takes determination. In “Whiplash” we assume there is an inherent skill to our protagonist’s ability that has been present since he picked up sticks at a young age, but it is the amount of hard work and sacrifice that will prove whether he will turn out to be complacent or one of the greats. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has plenty of ambition, but it is his drive that will turn the story of his life into something people might discuss around a dinner table decades after he dies. As a child who was not given everything on a silver spoon and certainly not conditioned to believe anything I touched would turn to gold failure in certain areas became an expectation. Our present, cushioned society makes these truths indiscernible and so we garner generations where all that is expected is instant gratification with little endeavor or commitment required. “Whiplash,” while clearly drawn from personal experiences and small truths, is also and maybe even more of a commentary on if there is a line to be drawn in breaking down these barriers of reassurance. In what will likely be one of if not "the" defining performance of his career J.K. Simmons as conductor Terence Fletcher tells Andrew that there are no two words more harmful in the English language than, "good job." Fletcher has a philosophy that genius is not blessed upon an individual or built through congratulations, but rather because it is pushed to a breaking point where the only thing that matters is to never stop striving to be better. True greatness comes from real pain. Nothing will essentially ever be good enough for Fletcher and it is in this drive to prove him wrong that Andrew is unable to stop. With his second directorial effort Damien Chazelle has crafted a film so in tune with itself and its character arcs that it is nothing short of exhilarating to see unfold. While one should take the literal actions of the film with a grain of salt and look at the bigger, metaphoric implications it is making to get a clearer message of its ideas it nonetheless comes together to deliver one of the best and certainly one of my favorite films of the year
We meet Andrew as a first year jazz drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. He describes the school as the best one for music in the United States and prides himself on becoming a part of Fletcher's core band. As a member of the core band Andrew would have access to opportunities that might afford him to make a living off his passion as well as the exposure to be recognized as "one of the greats" alongside the likes of his hero, Buddy Rich. While Simmons' Fletcher seems initially courteous and interested in the talented first year things escalate quickly once Fletcher affords Andrew the opportunity to serve as alternate in core rehearsals. Fletcher is relentless in his quest for perfection and while he attempts to give Andrew a chance to acclimate himself with the high-pressure setting and stringent requirements of his players he is like a lit fuse set to go off at any second. When Fletcher does let loose, he opens up a whole new world into which Andrew probably was afraid actually existed, but knew he would have to encounter in order to fulfill his dream. In only his first session with the core band Andrew is harassed and both physically and verbally abused by Fletcher who shifts temperament so quickly he can only be seen as either a master manipulator or complete psychopath. Outside of school Andrew becomes a drone, irritated by the thought of having to interact with other humans. He once upon a time went to the movies regularly with his father (Paul Reiser) and even developed a crush on the cute girl at the concession counter. Early in his initiation into Shaffer's core band he even thought it possible to date and asked the girl from the theater, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), out. Almost without warning the determination to win Fletcher over completely consumes Andrew's being and he is dismissing any thought of a real relationship with Nicole while eliciting certain traits more akin to his conductor at the dinner table with family and friends. The film chronicles Andrew's slow descent into the depths of his sacrifice and in revealing his inability to give into those who expect the impossible it displays how easily one can break, but more importantly how easy it is to settle.
Andrew has a desire to be successful, clearly, and while “Whiplash” is about how far he is willing to go in order to be successful it is also a movie that somewhat advocates its harsh treatment of its subject lead character in order to reach the elite status of exceptional. It is somewhat difficult to make a movie about what it takes to be truly great, to be truly extraordinary so as to go down in history without making a movie that also feels up to that level. How does one talk about the excess of pushing the limits to achieve greatness if the vehicle through which you're telling that story isn't in itself exceptional? Luckily for Chazelle he has enlisted two more than capable actors who sink as much of themselves into these roles as Fletcher expects his students to do with their music. As Andrew, Teller is the perfect balance of his own person while being able to submit himself completely to the expectations of someone else. We see who he is in his moments with his father and the short exchanges with Nicole as much as we do when he sits alone in his dorm room listening to Rich records. Andrew is a guy who is confident in himself and his talents, but seems to have never been challenged in that confidence. The catalyst for his character is his reaction to Fletcher's approach and because it instinctively tells him to strive to prove this guy wrong, we see the look in Teller's eyes change from open optimism to sharp determination. There is no looking back. Teller conveys this genuine drive with such intensity and truth that it feels we barely know the actor who up until this point had delivered only a couple of facets, but seemingly lets us in on a secret with this performance that he has much more to offer. On the other side of things is Simmons career-defining turn as Fletcher. If the guy doesn't walk away with a statue in February it will be a shame as his performance as a drill sergeant of a conductor is what amps up the film’s own beat and gives the audience the kind of energy music is usually intended to do. His Fletcher is a monster of a psychological terror that will turn any information you give him against you with the hope of never depriving the world of the next potential legend, which in some twisted way, is kind of admirable.
Does the film necessarily advocate the type of treatment Fletcher doles out in order to motivate his students? Maybe not. The film certainly paints a dark picture around Fletcher and points to how harmful too much pressure can be, but it feels as if it is more interested in posing the question of how far is too far rather than being the opposite comforting take that Fletcher's approach is completely unnecessary. In fact, his harsh demeanor, his profanity laced insults and his ability to get inside his students’ minds and subversively make them a better musician are completely acceptable to him and the film somewhat asks the audience to be understanding to this point of view. I don't know what it says about me as a person or my mentality, but I loved it. It gave me a rush not present in any other film I've seen so far this year. The film delivers a complete story of two characters who ultimately seem to find the satisfaction they crave by the climax of the film, but will never admit it for to do so would be to run the risk of allowing the idea of satisfaction into their minds. In many ways, Fletcher is creating another version of himself in the young Andrew; someone who will never allow himself to regress because of accolades or kind words, but rather someone who will always strive to outdo what they've done previously. This kind of drive is unforgiving in that it takes over your life, but it is a conscious decision. We see that Fletcher is alone, abandoned because he no doubt never gave an inch to anyone else in his life and in deciding to sacrifice everything for his art Andrew will end up the same way. Is it worth it? The film asks this question outright to Andrew at a dinner table conversation and without hesitation the idea of being known around the world as one of the best drummers of all time is wholly more gratifying than having friends or lasting relationships with family, even if he'll never be around to hear those conversations hailing him as the greatest. “Whiplash” is a film about how far one is willing to go and more interestingly how far one is willing to go before they realize they do or do not have what it takes. How one deals with facing the truth of the situation is equally as interesting, but Chazelle leaves all clarification at the door before his final scene and lets us decide whether we believe Andrew truly has what it takes to make his ambition a reality.