I do not play any musical instruments, nor can I read music, nor can I do anything generally musical that isn’t playing Hot Cross Buns on a recorder. Because of this fact I am incredibly relieved after spending almost two hours on the edge of my seat in anxious splendor as I watched a young, up-and-coming drummer get verbally abused by a brutal instructor. I am talking, of course, about Whiplash, and it is one of the best and most anxiety-inducing movies you have probably never heard of.
Andrew wants to be great. He does not have any friends aside from his dad who he goes to see movies with; he instead spends most of his time in the practice room at his music conservatory perfecting his talent. He lives, breathes, and dreams of drumming. Whenever he isn’t drumming, he is thinking of drumming; it’s all he has. When the most well-known instructor in the conservatory takes notice, he finds himself under the mentorship of a tyrannical monster.
Miles Teller is certainly a star on the rise. He gives such a heartbreaking and powerful performance in his strive for greatness but can never quite achieve it. He bleeds and pours sweat for his talent, ending up with blisters on his fingers and blood on the drums. We see him spiral downward throughout the film and it is horrifying. We get anxious whenever he is on the drums because if he messes up it is almost the equivalent to him pulling the wrong wire on a bomb that would destroy everything he loves and in this case it is drumming—without it he has nothing. It is so intense that the time he spends not drumming is a much needed relief. There are times we just want to shout for him to stop, that it’s not worth it, but he keeps going. How far is too far for perfection? The movie hangs that question in front of you the entire time, but Andrew is oblivious to it. Is there a line that is crossed at some point? Or is there no limit to what someone should do to be perfect? It is a searing and penetrative question that will stick with you after the credits roll.
The blood and sweat that Andrew pours is all for one man, Fletcher, played absolutely brilliantly by J.K. Simmons. He is the definition of a perfectionist, in fact he demands more than perfection. He wants so much out of his students that they leave the studio in tears and emotionally distressed. He throws expletives—and chairs—at his students in such a way that he might even be considered the best movie “villain” of the year. Simmons shatters all images of his lovable father-figure in Juno, and puts to shame his already intense attitude in Spiderman. It is the role of a lifetime, and never have we hated him more for it, but he is just so damn good and electrifying. Seldom do we see beneath his harsh and demeaning persona, and even when we do we are quickly reminded that he is the cruelest character to appear on screen this year.
From the foot-tapping score, to the kinetic and stylish editing, to comedic (though very dark) script, Whiplash will build you up and throw you back down hard. When the music is playing without interruptions we are relieved. When it stops, it can either mean that they are done for the day or, worse, that Terrence is going to hurl a chair at someones face or verbally destroy a musician to the point of tears. The editing keeps all the tense elements together. When we cut to shots of Andrew playing we have a momentary shock that he might slip or drop his sticks. It makes for a very enjoyable movie, but at times is almost takes away from the tension and makes you think you are seeing a light-hearted movie about a jazz band. The humor though, arrises when you least expect it. It is, perhaps, our cathartic response to the terror that Fletcher puts Andrew through. We want to laugh to make ourselves feel better, we want to laugh because it might make it less horrible, but for as long at the movie goes, it does not get better.
Whiplash is not an easy movie to watch; it will make you more anxious than just about any movie this year; it will make you fearful of a mistake and exuberantly happy when Andrew does a good job; and it will probably make you never want to pick up any sort of musical instrument ever again. With tour de force performances from two excellent actors who gave it their all for their roles, Whiplash is an amazing and devastating movie that questions what it means to be perfect and how far someone will go to be just that. If Whiplash is playing in a theater near you, go see it. Just be warned, you may have a panic-attack.