By Jack Ryan, For The Miami Student
On the wall in Andrew Neiman's dorm room, there is a poster of his idol, Buddy Rich, adorned with the quote: "If you don't have ability, you end up playing in a rock band."
This quote is inherent of Andrew's biggest fear. For Andrew, fame and success are merely temporary traits. No, Andrew doesn't want to be famous; he wants to be great, one of the greats even. As he crashes into life, his drum set and his malicious, yet motivating teacher, "Whiplash" skillfully highlights Andrew's ultimate struggle to unleash potential and overcome the impending hell of normality.
"Whiplash" begins with Andrew (Miles Teller), a struggling freshman drum student, practicing on his own. He's introverted, friendless and isn't respected by friends nor family. His mother left him as a child and his father is the kind of guy whose version of fun seems to be putting Raisinets in his popcorn. When we first see Andrew, he is nothing more than average.
During this practice, he is surprised with an interruption by notorious conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Their first encounter is brief, but very revealing. Andrew is nervous, yet eager to succeed; Fletcher is brutal and militaristic in his demeanor. Despite this awkward introduction, Andrew is soon recruited into Fletcher's top tier studio band, and becomes subject to his direct instruction.
This is where "Whiplash" takes off. Throughout their practices and concerts, Fletcher pushes Andrew beyond his limits emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. We begin to see changes in Andrew. He goes through a metamorphosis of passion; from graciously turning pages for his peer, to outperforming those around him, to seething with loathing when that same drummer steals his hard-earned spot. He sheds most of the people he holds close for drumming and his furious eyes and bleeding hands illustrate his desperation for greatness.
While this film could have easily been a motivational coming-of-age film in other hands, director Damien Chazelle packs "Whiplash" full of Kubrickian dread and anxiety, because Andrew doesn't just want to be great; he despises the idea of being normal like his father. This dread is mainly facilitated through Fletcher, whose manipulation of his students is sadistic, but calculated.
Chazelle has admitted that he took major inspiration from Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" for this film, but the fights aren't necessarily between Fletcher and Andrew. Rather, these melees are most prominent when Andrew is alone in his practice room, anxiously slamming every ounce of his being into his drum kit. Like a boxing match, the drums hit him right back, wearing him down mentally and physically, while creating a cacophony of sound and pain. There is no emotional release in his music, just the boiling of ambition.
"Whiplash" is visually pleasing, filled with unorthodox editing that coincides with the different tempos and charts of its score as the camera moves all over the stage, the drums, and the faces of the characters. J.K Simmons and Miles Teller both have their career-best performances, through unhindered ferocity and contained emotion. They are phenomenal respectively, and watching their on-screen chemistry is the filmic version of mixing Mentos and Coke.
At the center of Fletcher's teaching ideology rests the opinion that "there are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job." This belief is reflected not just in the characters, but in the structure of the film itself. There were at least three times where I thought Whiplash was about to end, and I would still have enjoyed the film if it had ended there. But it didn't. To elaborate without spoiling, this film concludes by launching and landing a cinematic haymaker in what might be one of the best endings I've ever seen. It's a gutsy call, but it pays off exponentially. "Whiplash" truly achieves greatness because it passes up on its blatant opportunity to be average.
"Whiplash" is nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture. It comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 24.