(Damien Chazelle, 2014)
A drama that plays like a gut-wrenching thriller, Whiplash is impressive in enough ways that its flaws cease to matter early on.
It tells the story of Andrew Neman (Miles Teller), a 19 year old music student at the prestigious Schaffer Institute in New York who wants to be the world's greatest jazz drummer. To that end, he craves the attention and approval of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the leader of the Institute's house band and a fearsome taskmaster and moulder of talent. Fletcher notices him, drafts him into said band, and begins a campaign of attrition seemingly designed to break the young man, insulting and threatening him, humiliating him in front of peers and rivals, making him play until he literally bleeds onto his drums. Meanwhile Andrew alienates his sweet new girlfriend when he tells her she will only distract him from his quest to be "great", insults his fathers friends when they patronise his calling, and generally finds his life shrinking down to himself, Fletcher and his drum-kit. And then things get worse.
This is in every way a debut; it feels tightly controlled and planned in every particular the way debut films are, by hungry young filmmakers eager to make sure their first shot is the one. The screenplay is tight and a little too rote in parts; the scene where Andrew returns home seems as if it has been inserted just to show us what he is actually like, since up to this point we have mainly watched him react to things and people and heard relatively little from him about what he thinks or feels. It feels a little like the result of some feedback from a screenwriting seminar. Later on the story reaches a few silly heights, but it has you in it's grip then, and will not let go, for all the silly coincidences and unbelievable actions may strain your belief.
That should not diminish Chazelle's achievement; Whiplash is powerful, pitiless stuff. He shoots it mainly in tight, gorgeous close-ups and his colour palette is phenomenal and seems somehow to echo this romantic, lush music - deep crimsons, rich golden hues, chestnut backgrounds surround the faces, pooled in light. Cutaways and inserts give a real sense of the texture of life in a big band. The script is full of great lines, the majority given to Simmons, who tears away at Fletcher like his career depended on it. He is ferocious, witty, passionate, and he finally meets a match in Teller's blank-eyed slave to ambition and Buddy Rich. These duelling sociopaths would destroy everything in their path, but their own clash makes for terrific drama, and much of the credit has to go to the two actors, who are wonderful.
Chazelle orchestrates the tension beautifully - a few scenes are almost unwatchably intense, based on nothing more than human drama - and he knows when to let the music play too; Whiplash is filled with great tunes.