“Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.”
-Thomas Leroy (Black Swan)
Films about greatness or obsession always come down to how interesting the particular lead character is. Someone who is flawed and talented always plays better to the mass audience. A movie like Walk The Line is fine, but I want more than poor choices and drugs to destroy my main character. I want passion. The desire to be great above all else. Whiplash might be the ultimate tale of being obsessed with greatness. Whiplash takes place in the world of jazz music. Not a particularly interesting start to a plot summary, right? But what we have in Whiplash is a story about obsession and hard work that is better than almost anything you’ll see this year.
Miles Teller (Spectacular Now) stars as Andrew Neiman, a freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. Neiman is quickly drafted by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) into his elite competition band. Neiman’s willingness to give up everything to become the greatest drummer since Buddy Rich makes him Fletcher’s main focus. Fletcher and Neiman share a love for music and a passion for greatness that will eventually lead to potential destruction.
Whiplash is a small film that needs only its two leads and music to mesmerize you. J.K. Simmons (Juno) plays Terence Fletcher and gives the performance of a lifetime. Fletcher is, perhaps, the best villain I’ve seen in film this year. The role demands a drill sergeant-esq performance with profanity laced tirades that would make R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) proud. Fletcher never lets up, and neither does Simmons. Simmons, who is mostly known for comedies and commercials, brings the bigger than life frightening Fletcher to life. Few actors could pull off this role without making it seem hokey or cliché, but Simmons does just that. Neiman and the audience hang onto each destructive word Fletcher spews.
Teller holds his own against the masterful Simmons. Andrew Neiman’s quiet, structured existence is upheaved by Fletcher. Miles Teller grabs this arc and runs with it. Teller, who is known for his charisma and charm, was asked to tone it down, and boy does he. Neiman is the opposite of any character Teller has ever played. This role, because of its quiet intensity, shows his full range of talent. Neiman is constantly pushed to his breaking point, and Teller plays it beautifully. Both Teller and Simmons should be expecting nominations at the end of this year.
The icing on the cake is Damien Chazelle. Chazelle has directed only one other film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, but his talent is undeniable. This film reminded me of something a young P.T. Anderson would have made. The attention to detail and the ability to let the actors act will service Chazelle well in future endeavors. The editing, score, and cinematography are equally impressive. But it’s Chazelle’s ability to craft a tale of obsession and greatness that stands out. He also wrote the script, which is outstanding as well. Chazelle has us sitting on the edge of our seats every time Teller’s character is playing. We are rooting for his success, but much more for him to not fail Fletcher. The way Chazelle creates the intensity in Whiplash is beyond phenomenal.
I have not seen a more intriguing and all around perfect movie this year. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons give two of the best performances you will ever see. I’ve never felt so much tension from a movie with so little at stake. Damien Chazelle has crafted a modern masterpiece about a college kid who wants to be a jazz drummer. Just as the lead character strives for greatness, I hope Chazelle doesn’t rest and keeps pushing. We may have the start of something special.