Movie Review: Whiplash
True story: in high school gym class, we had to complete a ropes course. One of the obstacles was climbing up a net that went as high as the ceiling, hoisting ourselves over the top, and climbing back down the other side. Teenage Allie climbed up the net but could not hoist herself over the top—just literally could not do it. My gym teacher—let’s call him Mr. L—tightened my harness and refused to let me come down the same side I went up or “fall” back to the ground. Instead, Mr. L made me stay at the top of the net, holding on but unable to get over the top, for the rest of the gym period. He made me stay at the top of the net until the gym period ended, and he made me stay at the top of the net until every other person in the class had filed out of the gym. Only then did he let me climb back down. And the next gym class, he told me, I would need to complete the net—going over the top.
I tell you this long story about my high school gym class because Whiplash takes that idea of teachers pushing students to the edge and turns it into a film that does a great job at capturing the nature of creative obsession. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a 19-year-old drummer who wants to be “one of the greats.” His teacher, Fletcher—played by an outstanding and scene-dominating J.K. Simmons—is hard on the students, borderline abusive with the way he treats the band (a point that is brought up in the movie). In one scene towards the end of the film, Andrew and Fletcher have a conversation that addresses points I was wondering about during the whole movie—they talk about the latter’s teaching methods, and Andrew asks if there’s a “line” that can or might be crossed with this tough-love approach. Fletcher says that there isn’t, that a truly wonderful musician wouldn’t give up at any “line” that was being crossed, that no amount of testing would make someone who was meant to be a musician quit. Great scene, great movie.
I’ve heard that others are saying the characters aren’t totally realistic (which I agree with), and the movie doesn’t do a great job of creating well-rounded characters (we really only know that these characters like music. Literally nothing else about them, except that Andrew doesn’t like Raisinets). While the movie isn’t perfect, it does come pretty close.
I did not want to see this movie at all; it doesn’t look like one I’d like at all, and the only theater it was playing at was pretty annoying to get to. But it was well worth the trek to see it. It keeps you on edge the whole time and although Andrew isn’t even that likeable, somehow you still root for him. Even if you know nothing about music, this movie will make you wish you loved any hobby enough to make your fingers bleed playing the same five beats over and over again.
Circling back to my own mean-teacher anecdote, I did complete the net the next gym class. I hoisted my butt over the top and scrambled back down the net and immediately unhooked that horrible harness. Go me. That being said, I would like to make this clear: I am not thankful for Mr. L for keeping me at the top of that net in gym class. It did not push me to be a better ropes-course-completer or inspire me to pursue my athletic talents. Whiplash would say it was because I wasn’t the next famous gymnast, but I say it’s because sometimes you can push a student past the breaking point and embarrass them to the point of relaying the story nearly 10 years later. And the danger with doing that to a writer, Mr. L, is that one day you will end up in something I write. Such as a review on a movie website. And some people reading this know your real name!
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
See it: Around New Year’s. Andrew’s perseverance will motivate you to keep pushing through with your New Year’s Resolutions
There are thousands of films that have stakes no lesser than the end of the world, yet fail to induce more than a yawn, so it’s remarkable that a film about a young drummer at a music conservatory is able to turn up the tension to 11 and induce a joyful, sustained squeamishness in me.
Whiplash isn’t a film that builds its own world for you to get lost in or wows you as it juggles a hundred moving parts. It’s a narrowly focused film about one intensely ambitious student and a psychotic bully of a mentor and what happens when these two cross paths. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much drive and too little heart, and it’s a thrill to watch it unfold.
The leanness also applies to the characters. All you know about the protagonist Andrew is essentially that he wants to be one of the greatest drummers of all time, and all you know about the teacher Fletcher is that he is a demanding mentor that will use every tactic he has to achieve greatness from his students. There’s little else that’s ever provided to illuminate these characters, and remarkably it’s the only thing you need. These characters still manage to surprise and shock while remaining true to the basic, raw characteristics that make them tick. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons provide an electric, unhinged energy to their characters that sells these characters, especially in a truly incredible finale that is equal parts unpredictable and stunning. I can’t wait to see what filmmaker Damien Chazelle does next.