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Review: Whiplash

October 22, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Whiplash Poster

When you search the word “whiplash” in the dictionary, one of the definitions that comes up is to “move suddenly and forcefully, like a whip being cracked.”

And what better way to describe Whiplash, a music film from promising young director Damien Chazelle that unfolds with the force and intensity of a sports movie or battlefield drama.  I left the theatre feeling positively high.

After earning acclaim at multiple festivals including Sundance, Cannes and TIFF, Whiplash arrives in limited release this week with plenty of accolades already behind it, and emerges as one of the absolute best films of 2014.

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a talented young jazz drummer who dreams of being one of the greats.  But his aspirations mean having to endure the shocking abuse and demands dished out by his teacher Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who sees no problem with pushing his students over the edge in the name of perfection and success.

Everything in Andrew’s life, including a budding relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the cute girl behind the counter at his favourite movie theatre, has to be put on hold.  His father (Paul Reiser) notices him becoming increasingly distant.  Practising becomes his sole focus and obsession, eventually moving fast enough to leave his hands cut and blood splattered across the drum set, as Fletcher barks orders at him like a military commander.

Right from the opening sounds of an insistent drum beat, as a mesmerizing tracking shot takes us down the basement hallways of the conservatory, revealing Andrew practising and Fletcher observing him from a doorway, I was hooked.  The experience of watching these two go at each other’s throats makes for gripping cinema, anchored by some of the finest acting we are bound to see all year.  Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons deliver two of the best performances of their respective careers, masterfully portraying the increasingly tense and volatile relationship between this abrasive instructor and his shy student.

As we already know from Rabbit Hole and The Spectacular Now, Miles Teller is one of our best young actors.  We can’t take our eyes off this character who keeps being chipped away at until he is completely raw and broken, only to piece himself back together and come back even stronger, and it’s a mesmerizing performance brought to life through small mannerisms and facial expressions.  Because the actor has been playing the drums since he was a teenager, the scenes of him performing feel authentic, and we really are witnessing an already talented performer pushing himself even further into greatness.

This is matched by tremendous supporting work from J.K. Simmons, drawing us in with quiet moments that are quickly revealed to be cold and calculating, only to explode with bulging veins and the most cutting insults imaginable.  Many of his putdowns are homophobic and sexist, and he almost seems turned on by abusing the power he has over his students.  It’s the sort of raging and unforgettable performance that still manages to feel nuanced and reined in, a character who is both disturbingly cruel and impossible to look away from.

And then there’s the soundtrack, a stunning collection of jazz music that provides a fittingly propulsive and energetic backdrop to the performances.  This is quite simply one of the best music films since Bob Fosse’s masterpiece All That Jazz in 1979, with the seamless edits and quick cuts to match every note recalling the mesmerizing power of that iconic classic.  There are also undertones of Black Swan throughout Whiplash in the themes of pursuing perfection at any cost, even when nerves are long since shot and a breakdown not only seems inevitable, but also understandable.

This is one of those truly great films that constantly finds ways to surprise us, even when we think we know where the story is going to end up.  These sharp left turns keep us on the edge of our seats, like watching a musician perform an increasingly intricate solo, only letting out our collectively held breath once the last note is played and everything has fallen perfectly into place.  This all leads up to one of the most unforgettable endings of any movie this year, a finale that leaves us jumping to our feet in rapturous applause, an experience often more closely associated with a concert hall than a movie theatre.

This is among the most unforgettable moviegoing experiences of the year, delivering the sort of pulse quickening shot of pure adrenaline that is usually reserved for action movies or thrillers.  With outstanding performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, matched by stunning camerawork and brilliant editing, Whiplash is a gripping drama that plays with the intensity of a thriller, an energizing and emotionally powerful experience that reaches a stunning crescendo.  Wow!

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