Sunday, November 16, 2014
WHIPLASH Hits Hard and Doesn't Let Up
- We've all seen movies about the saintly, inspirational mentor. We know the drill. But WHIPLASH - a remarkable film about the quest for greatness - completely tears down that model and gives us something darker, more complex, and wholly gripping. The film presents a nightmarish vision of a mentor/student relationship that simultaneously feels like a mutually beneficial partnership and a mutually destructive rivalry. Miles Teller stars as the student, Andrew - a 19 year old drummer enrolled at a prestigious New York music conservatory. J.K. Simmons plays the teacher, Fletcher - a monstrous, towering figure who displays brief glimpses of paternal affection that are quickly overshadowed and stripped away by violent eruptions of anger, vindictive mind games, and negative reinforcement. Fletcher is convinced he's only pushing his students to be the best they can be. But it soon becomes clear that while his methods may sporadically be effective, they are, also, extremely dangerous to the impressionable students who have to endure his outbursts. And yet ... Fletcher has a pull on Andrew that Andrew can't quite shake. The two circle each other, and it's in that push-and-pull that WHIPLASH finds its fire. The movie is pure cinematic jazz, a pulse-pounding journey into the abyss that left me sweaty and exhausted. Teller and Simmons are both electric. It's a must-see.
Now that I've seen the film, it's clear that writer/director Damien Chazelle is one to watch. He tells this story in a way that is totally captivating and mesmerizing. The film is ultimately a small-scale story, but Chazelle's direction provides a dark, almost lurid ambiance that contributes to the movie's nightmarish quality. There's a sense of heightened reality to the film. In fact, you might say it takes on the tone and aesthetic of the jazz music that Andrew and Fletcher are both obsessed with. Just when you think things are going to go one way, there's a sudden shift, an unexpected shake-up.
The scenes of Fletcher with his students are at once funny, unnerving, and downright scary. "Not quite my tempo." becomes a phrase that strikes the fear of god into your heart, as Simmons' Fletcher looms above his students, demanding perfection and more than willing to hurl verbal and physical abuse at any who perform with anything less. The scenes play out like some warped, music-school riff on Alec Baldwin's famous sequence in Glengarry Glen Ross. Fletcher here is not the tough-but-well-meaning mentor figure here - not even close. He's truly mean and nasty - spouting sharp-tonged insults and homophobic put-downs with demonic abandon. The fascinating question here though is: is his awfulness in service of a greater good? By breaking down Andrew and the others, is Fletcher actually making them great? In any case, Simmons is phenomenal here. His Fletcher is a larger-than-life force of nature. He's the nightmare version of every failed-artist, bitter and mean teacher you've ever had rolled into one sinewy package. The character represents the ultimate embodiment of the succeed-at-all-costs mentality. Simmons here is a powder-keg - it's an instantly-iconic performance.
The movie also shines with its musical scenes. The movie portrays musical performance in a way I've never quite seen on film before - not as improvisational art, but as a tightly-controlled, incredibly exacting and precise discipline. This isn't a movie where you see a lot of magically-perfected musical performance that seems to just happen out of thin air. This is a film where you see the sweat pour down the performers' brows, where you see the blood on their fingers from playing too hard, the tears in their eyes as they fight off the looming possibility of cracking under the pressure to nail their parts. That makes for a surprisingly visceral assortment of performance scenes, that run the gamut from tangibly taxing to triumphantly transcendent. In all of them, Teller shines brightly. His face makes us feel Andrew's pain as he pushes himself to play harder, faster, and with pinpoint precision. Teller has impressed in films like The Spectacular Now - he has a Tom Hanks like regular-joe charisma that makes him a natural at playing the everyman. But here, he really pushes himself just as his character does. Andrew is a quiet guy haunted by his father's past failures. He is now driven to be the best, to be an all-time great, like his idol Charlie Parker. Early in the movie, he meets a girl. But if the subplot feels like a distraction, that's the point. Charlie is singularly obsessed with drumming, and that puts him squarely in Fletcher's orbit, despite the clear fact that Fletcher is not only abusive, but has as much interest in assuring the failure of his students as he does guiding them towards success.
WHIPLASH really won me over with its willingness to go to some pretty crazy, unexpected places with its storytelling. There are some great twists and turns that keep you guessing, and moments that genuinely shock. For a movie about a drummer, it's pretty damn extreme. It's bloody, violent, profane, and intense as all hell. It's a journey down the rabbit hole that will leave you reeling. What's also impressive is that it doesn't provide easy answers. Simmons' Fletcher is a bad guy, but he's also not exactly *the* bad guy of the film. Instead, he provides a scary symbol of ruthless ambition and perfectionism that comes at a high spiritual and moral cost. We see the Fletchers of the world all the time: in education, in art, in sports, in business. People whose idea of greatness is more about meeting quantifiable standards of excellence as opposed to doing things that are truly meaningful or lasting. Sometimes, there is an overlap: we see athletes and artists and others who are embodiments of the notion that success is derived first and foremost from hard work and high standards. But then - when we see the teachers who deride their students more than encourage, the coaches who throw tantrums and act like they're at war, the businessmen and women who give up their humanity in search of success - we wonder at what cost does the pursuit of greatness come? That's what makes WHIPLASH so thought-provoking and interesting: it leaves us both awed by Andrew's musical achievements, but also more than a little worried that he's sold his soul - at least a little bit - to get to that point. WHIPLASH makes us question our ambitions in a profound way, and it's a film that has ultimately disturbing implications. But man, this is quite simply gripping-as-hell filmmaking. Brutal and intense, WHIPLASH hits hard.
My Grade: A