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Film Review: Whiplash (2014)

The first thing presented in Whiplash is an urgent strain of percussion, a sharp beating on a snare drum that grows faster and faster until it suddenly stops. The drummer, protagonist Andrew (Miles Teller), is interrupted in the middle of his focused practising by Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a teacher at the ultra-competitive music school that Andrew attends. The characters and their dynamic are established at once as Fletcher intimidates Andrew from the doorstep of the practise room and calculatedly slams the door as he exits. From then on, Andrew does all he can to prove himself to Fletcher, even as his mentor abuses him relentlessly—insulting, striking, and toying with Andrew—in order to coax the potential greatness out of his most-driven student.

Most deservedly, Whiplash was awarded Oscars for sound mixing and film editing. Different percussion-based sounds and music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, that permeate the movie indicate the musical nature of Andrew, who is a true drummer at heart, and lend a certain style to the jazz-focused film. The editing that follows the beat of the music also adds to the distinctive rhythm of Whiplash. On top of it all, gleaming brass instruments, close-ups of Andrew’s bloodied hands and drums, and a stage awash in golden light are among the memorable visuals in this brilliant film. And, as IMBD states, “The title of the film refers to many things: the first complex jazz piece Andrew learned and performed with Fletcher's band, a common neck injury from car accidents, one of which was depicted during the film, the beating of a drum similar to the cracking or lashing of a whip, and, of course, the abuse [Andrew] suffers under Fletcher.”

Based on real-life experiences of writer-director Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is at its core a fascinating study of two warped individuals in a battle of wills, more so than it is a movie about jazz. Simmons completely embodies the monstrous Fletcher, who is mercurial and psychotic in his emotional abuses toward his students, yet deeply invested in finding and shaping musical talent. Occasional flashes of humanity and emotion are made to seem ambiguous in their proximity to his worst manipulations. Andrew’s obsession to be one of the greats alienates him from his father and girlfriend, as he believes that they do not understand his passion and ambition. He grows more arrogant at the threat of being replaced by another drummer, yelling expletive-laden insults as cruel as his mentor’s. Teller’s real drum work is highlighted, of course, as he hammers away until sweat pours down his face and his hands bleed real blood. His acting talents are more hidden as Andrew simmers throughout the film, labouring behind closed doors in his efforts to improve his technique and enduring Fletcher’s violent tirades, until it culminates in a ferocious ending. The finale has sparked debate about the final message of the film, which leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Andrew’s achievement was worth the cost to his humanity and if Fletcher’s abuse is justified by Andrew’s success.

Rating: 5 out of 5 blood-soaked bandages

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