Film review: ‘Whiplash’ is a war movie—set inside a music conservatory

Drumming till it hurts.

Three and a half stars

Whiplash Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated R. Opens Friday.

All of the ads for Whiplash show lead actor Miles Teller seated behind a drum kit, so it’s natural to assume that it’s a movie about a musician. It isn’t, though. It’s a boxing movie—or maybe a war movie—that happens to take place inside an elite music conservatory. In this corner: Andrew Neyman (Teller), who yearns to be one of the world’s great jazz drummers (though his idea of “great” is Buddy Rich, which is a bit quaint) and is more than prepared to put in the necessary hard work. He’s still not quite prepared, however, for Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the school’s jazz band and Andrew’s ostensible teacher. To say that Fletcher is a hardass would be inaccurate—even the hardest ass in the world is still at least a little bit pliable, whereas this frustrated drill sergeant appears to take cruel pleasure in tormenting kids, Andrew in particular.

Whiplash is essentially an extended power struggle between the two, one that shades into a weird sort of S&M relationship. The more Andrew tries to prove his worth by sacrificing his flesh, playing until his fingers literally bleed, the more Fletcher insists that he’s worthless. There’s not much more to the movie than that, but it’s mostly enough, thanks to the two formidable actors at its center.

Teller has made a sizable name for himself in just a few years (his big-screen debut was 2010’s Rabbit Hole), but this is his true breakthrough; playing a character who’s constantly being psychologically abused prevents him from coasting on his usual wised-up, rapid-fire charm, which is wholly ineffective against a sadist of Fletcher’s caliber. And Simmons, who’s spent the past few years mostly playing empathetic dads in films like Juno and Post Grad, serves up a potent reminder that he made his initial reputation playing the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood on HBO’s Oz. Whenever these two share the screen, sparks fly, and director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) clearly knows it, introducing one subplot involving a potential romantic interest for Andrew only to quickly scuttle it.

If Whiplash ultimately appears to suggest that great artists are the products of great tyranny—a discomfiting notion—it’s worth noting that there any many historical cases (e.g., Mozart) that support the idea. In any case, it definitely makes for engrossing mano-a-mano action.

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