‘There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’. utters Terence Fletcher, both Whiplash‘s central protagonist AND antagonist. If this truly is the case and the words ‘good’ and ‘job’ are so toxic, then what words can we instead conjure up to explain the sheer brilliance of Whiplash, the latest music drama from writer/director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench)?
Make no mistake, Whiplash is one of the best films of the past year – an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride so chock full of twists and moments of pure breathless vigour that one might wish to consider holding a paper bag in the cinema in case they suddenly feel the need to rapidly breathe in and out of it, should the rapturous energy and verve on-screen prove too much for them.
A relentless and kinetic thrill-ride, Whiplash centres on the destructive relationship between aspiring drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and his cut-throat music instructor Fletcher (bought to life onscreen by the indomitable presence of J.K. Simmons). Violent, bullying, foul-mouthed Fletcher believes that pushing people into exceeding their limits and trying to achieve the unreachable is the only way to nurture talent, something the arrogant yet spirited Andrew begins to buy into. But as the film continues, the relationship between mentor and student intensifies to unthinkable levels, resulting in a climactic clash that threatens them both.
It’s no surprise that J.K. Simmons steals the show here, his portrayal of Fletcher worthy of an Oscar after just the first scene alone! Intimidating from the off, Simmons is a powerful presence throughout the film, terrifying and imposing in every take – think Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket (1987) crossed with André Previn and you have some idea of what to expect. It’s a scene-stealing performance, a perfect combination of a great script and an even greater actor, resulting in a truly spectacular performance. On the receiving end of Fletcher’s hysterics is Teller, whose quieter, more reserved and nuanced performance provides a much-needed contrast to Simmon’s angrier, scarier character, though as events conspire against Andrew, Teller turns in an equally blazing, scene stealing performance, especially in the sensationally tense drumming scenes, all of which Teller performs himself.
The drumming scenes are so brilliantly shot, the close-ups of the snare, toms and cymbals dripping in sweat and blood a sight that really makes you feel in the moment, the sheer look of pain on Teller’s face as he drums away enough to make your wrists and hands cramp in tandem with his! Chazelle’s choice of shots and his kinetic, energetic editing give these scenes the pace, power and breathlessness they need to truly thrill, bringing the audience into the moment itself. The stark and slow direction in the quieter scenes build the tension up and up, much like a horror film, before unleashing all hell in a maelstrom of pulsing vibrancy, violence, soaring jazz music and foul-mouthed insults!
Everything at work here feels crafted to fit together in much the same way a musical piece does – the performances, the direction, the script, the editing, the music, the camera work, the lighting – each and every element composed and arranged to create a truly masterful piece of work, an edgy and vibrant drama that shocks, soars and sings for the entirety of its breezy running time. Culminating in what can only be described as one of the best endings to a film ever, there is no doubt that Whiplash is way more than just a ‘good job’.
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