Film review: Whiplash (Director: Damien Chazelle)
By Sascha Krieger
No, this will not be fun and games. This much is clear as the camera moves slowly through a dark corridor towards a similarly dark and bare room with a sole drum kid behind which a young man is sweating. Relentlessly – against his instrument and himself – he is repeating the same patterns and rhythms, again and again. The distant view of him becomes intimate and then dissolves – into partial glimpses of his face, hands, drumsticks. There will be much sweat, tears, blood, the drumsticks will become instruments of torture inflicted by the young man to himself. If love for music was the initial motivation to take up this strenuous activity, he has moved far beyond it at the film’s outset. Miles Teller plays Andrew, an ambitious young musical student moving into the dark realm of obsession, willing to throw away family, friendship, love in pursuit of that elusive dream and nightmare of being someone special, being remembered, not fading into oblivion when his tombstone is erected. His face will harden and shut and distort itself as he will learn to play the game.
A game whose master is Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) a legendary musician turned sadistic teacher who will do anything to achieve perfection, leaving plenty of corpses along the wayside. Soon Fletcher discovers Andrew and recruits him to his elite band in which survival of the fittest is the norm. Andrew, starting out in friendly naivety quickly learns the game, accepts the power struggle, lashes out against his competitors and ultimately overestimates his power. What starts out as a coming of age film about a boy pursuing his dream turns into a thriller in which strong wills battle and only one can survive. If Andrew wants to be the one he has to turn into the other, become Fletcher, lose all scruples, become unashamedly brutal and cruel. Against himself and against others. As in all good thrillers there are various twists and turns and, when all seems to be over, an epic showdown that leaves the viewer shaking. By that time, the lines between good and bad have long been blurred, the distinction become irrelevant, the price to be payed for the dream’s pursuit unpayable and at the same time unquestioningly accepted.
Whiplash is an unforgiving powerhouse of a film, an uncompromising tale about what trying to be the best entails, how much it can strip you of your humaneness, and about the choices one must make in life. Andrew makes his, has them taken away and restored and, given a second chance, returns to the path that already almost destroyed him once – or maybe it already did. But it’s his choice, he is victim and culprit all in one. Teller plays his role with brutal honestly and he has a frighteningly impressive counterpart in a Mephistophelic Simmons whose Faust ultimately threatens to supplant him. The film never goes for simple morality, it asks questions that we seem to be able to answer easily. But then we see this utterly likable boy find his own answers which are very different from ours and we start wondering whether all this might not be a little more complicated than we though.
Director Damien Chazelle tells this story in the frantic rhythm of the jazz that is instrument and fate and abyss of those that fight in this arena, armed with drumsticks that are as deadly a weapon as swords. The images move with the pulse of this throbbing, unrelenting music, fragmenting into long shots and extreme close-ups, a dance of mosaic pieces that becomes its own song. Camera, editing, sound merge into a never-ending beat that accelerates and slows down, frantically races to its climax before it comes to a standstill only to restart itself into a powerful back and forth as the opponents who are also accomplices engage in one last battle. Light and color are part of the package, too: the slightly nostalgic glow of romantic dreams becomes the pale grey of disillusion before turning into the golden light of competition. Who has won and what would be the criteria for winning, what its price. Whiplash sings its own song of life, a life that isn’t black or white, a life in which winning might be fatal and the greatest triumph the worst defeat. It has a million equation but no answers. All it offers is blood, sweat, tears. And music.