Whiplash is a solid gut punch of a movie- one that lays you flat on your back by the end of it, knocking the wind out of you as you wonder where the impact came from. 29-year-old director Damien Chazelle shows he can craft suspense scenes that'll rip your heart out of your throat in spite of the fact that this movie really could not be classified as a thriller in any way...but it goes to show you how something original can still be done with a style of filmmaking intended to upend convention.
Not that this is a perfect film. In fact for the first half of it, it's difficult to absorb, simply because the setup is so inherently ridiculous to take seriously. The Spectacular Now's Miles Teller is a 19-year-old college student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory (clearly meant to model Juilliard) where he harbors dreams of becoming the next Charlie Parker. He's a talented drummer who's spotted in the film's opening scene by the belligerent Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school's studio band conductor, who makes his living by turning his students into punching bags, berating them with homophobic, xenophobic, and personal insults (although the line is apparently drawn at racially insensitive remarks, since we never see him screaming at the African-American kids) supposedly meant to push them to reach their talent limit in a way no talk of "encouragement" ever could.
For quite a while I simply was unable to buy this premise. First of all, no instructor or teacher could ever get away with hurling verbal and physical abuse at their students- the classroom scenes seem ripped straight out of Full Metal Jacket, when Lee Ermey's drill instructor would scream obscenities at his cadets, charged with turning them into killers as a metaphor for what the military does to young men. That scenario made sense on the level of allegory- this situation seems designed simply to give J.K. Simmons a showcase to dominate the screen as a flashy, monstrous lunatic- which, to be fair he does extremely well (it's a powerful performance). But that setup simply doesn't work in every scenario. First of all, it's a music school that's not segregated by gender- why are there no girls in this class? My guess is because their presence would immediately pull you out of any reality this is meant to evoke- maybe you can buy Fletcher's antics in a room full of guys as some entertaining showboating ala Full Metal Jacket, but again, that was the very macho universe of the army, in a film that was making a point about the violent nature of man. This is a music college. It's not a male dominated world (we see girls walking around outside of Fletcher's classroom), the only reason they're not in the room is so we can buy the conceit- it's a fantasy.
But it's not supposed to be a fantasy- you're meant to buy into this story on a level of reality here. What ultimately saves the film for me is the unexpected turn that Simmons's character takes in the final third, a twist that does defy expectation and leads to a supremely intense, thrillingly climactic sequence that spotlights a feat of bravura directing more impressive than anything I've seen this year. Chazelle has a way of staging the jazz scenes that manages to make your pulse race in a way you could hardly imagine was possible watching people play big band music. Miles Teller is very good in this film as the determined young would-be prodigy (no matter that anyone actually wanting to be in Fletcher's class is itself a suspension of disbelief), and Simmons of course dazzles with a sly, menacing grin as he takes what could be a rote, one-dimensional character out of the realm of cliche and into something truly memorable by the movie's end. I'd say it's worth seeing both for him and for the technical achievement of a new director boldly introducing himself to audiences with a lot of pizzazz.
* * *