PLOT: A young jazz musician finds his talent, heart and well-being tested when he enters the class of a pitilessly demanding instructor.
REVIEW: Producer Jason Blum is best known for his micro-budget horror efforts; his credits range from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to INSIDIOUS to SINISTER. But none of those films really come close to the intensity of his new production, Damien Chazelle's WHIPLASH, an intimate yet pulse-pounding study of a young musician's maturation through extreme conditioning.
Moreover, none of Blum's horror movie villains are as terrifying as Terence Fletcher, an uncompromising whose methods are borderline psychotic. As embodied by J.K. Simmons, Fletcher is an intimidating a character seen on the screen in a long time; you're likely to be as scared of him as the students he dominates are.
Fletcher takes the drill instructor approach to teaching, and he basically makes R. Lee Ermey's character in FULL METAL JACKET look tame by comparison. As the head of the music department in a prestigious New York conservatory, he demands nothing short of perfection from his pupils, who he attempts to motivate by any means necessary. Mind games, cruel put-downs, even hurling chairs are part of his daily routine - and that might be on a good day. He's looking for the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, a jazz musician who will be the next great thing, and he suspects he might have it in Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer he plucks from a second-tier class and installs in his own. It doesn't take long before he's crawling inside of Andrew's head, retrieving vital information from the young man before using it against him in order to humiliate him in front of the rest of the class. Any small thing you tell this guy about yourself can later be used as a tool of manipulation.
The truth is, most people would walk away from Fletcher and his constant barrage of vile insults, but those are the quitters. Andrew wants to be the best, so he must deal with one of the best, even if it comes at the expense of his own honor and reason. Fletcher puts him through the ringer, screaming at him, throwing things at him, making him drum until his hands bleed. This is traveling through hell in order to achieve perfection of beautiful, transportive music.
An unassuming young man from a broken home, with a failed writer father (Paul Reiser), Andrew is both in need of a goal and a person to push him toward it. That Fletcher is a frequently inhumane monster doesn't alter the fact that Andrew needs him, and he needs Andrew.
Both Simmons and Teller are fantastic in WHIPLASH. The former is getting heavy praise for his showy performance, and rightly so. When Fletcher is in the middle of one of his tirades - and there are many - Simmons commands the screen like a man possessed. Armed with a litany of creative, and hurtful, jabs, the actor has never been as great as he is here. This isn't to say his Fletcher is all bluster. Brilliantly, he's able to transform into a soft-spoken, good-natured father figure at the drop of a hat. Need someone to talk to? He's actually not such a bad guy, he can help. And then BAM, he's at your throat again. Part of what makes the character so insidious (pun intended) is you never know if he's being genuine or not, whether the nice guy is the real Fletcher and the dictator is the act, or the other way around. If Simmons isn't the recipient of an Oscar nomination early next year, it'll be a crime.
Teller won't necessarily receive quite as many plaudits as Simmons, if only because when Simmons is on the screen it's impossible to take your eyes off of him, but the younger man's turn is no less impressive. Much of the snarky swagger we've seen from Teller in a handful of his other notable roles is gone, replaced by a tangible vulnerability that makes you care very deeply for him - even when the insanity of his encounters with Fletcher begin to rub off on his relationships with others. As the movie heats up and Andrew rises to the occasion, you feel equal parts joy and sadness for what he's achieved at that particular price. Teller announces himself as a great young talent here.
And Damien Chazelle announces himself as a great young director. He orchestrates this small character drama with the precision of a veteran filmmaker. Able to infuse every scene with a sense of immediacy and electricity, you'll marvel at just how accomplished an indie feature this is, only his second. (He also wrote the sly, nutty thriller GRAND PIANO.) The rest of his team deserves much credit too, especially cinematographer Sharone Meir, whose camera is just as restless - yet nuanced - as an expert jazz player.
WHIPLASH is a great movie, one of the - if not the - best of the year.
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