“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher, an absurdly abusive Jazz band instructor at a prestigious music university. He is a man obsessed with perfection and Whiplash as a whole seems to be focused on this obsession, and, if attainable, the price it demands. Miles Teller, in a fantastic performance, plays Andrew, a first year student who dreams of becoming one of the all-time great Jazz drummers.
From the very first scene of the film Simmons radiates presence and pressure, delivering an equally great performance that works alongside the frenetic editing and music, molding Whiplash not into a drama but a taut thriller with psychological aspirations. There are whiffs of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan throughout, with Fletcher psychologically (and physically) abusing Andrew, excusing everything under the banner of “perfection.” Unfortunately Whiplash is often so over-dramatic and theatrical (at one point Fletcher hurls a chair at Andrew’s head) it quickly dehumanizes its two leads as a result of its absurdity.
It’s interesting (and troubling) that writer/director Damien Chazelle chose Jazz music as the focus for his study of obsession, sacrifice, and the price of perfection. He shows obvious talent and flair as a filmmaker, injecting more passion and ferocity into this one film than most can muster in a lifetime. But Fletcher seems obsessed with improving Andrew’s tempo precision and speed skills on the drum set, hurling bigoted slurs and F-words galore, convinced that those qualities shape perfection. Jazz, and music as an art form, relies on soul and passion, as Fletcher himself shows as he performs a low-key tune on the piano at a bar.
Whiplash is undeniably intense. Much of this intensity, however, stems from the incessant shouting and theatricality, heightened by the blast-beat editing. Much of it is absurd and completely unrealistic, which is disappointing when considering just how badly the film demands to be taken seriously. The ending is particularly disturbing (in which speed and technical prowess are once again equated with perfection), as it seemingly justifies outrageous mental, physical, and psychological abuse as a means to an end, turning Whiplash into a stylish, compelling, well-acted – but ultimately soulless – thriller.
All of that aside, it will have you on the edge of your seat, quietly applauding career-best performances from its leads, with Chazelle delivering a whirlwind of cinematic bravura that stands as perhaps the most intense film of the year.