Film: Whiplash

Whiplash (2014) is a film about the extreme lengths people will go to achieve greatness. It’s the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an ambitious young jazz drummer at a prestigious New York music conservatory who wants to be the best. His first encounter with the scathing, legendary jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)—the man to impress at the school, with a career-making reputation—leaves him full of doubt. But Fletcher sees something in him, and singles him out to join his best-of-the-best jazz band. Andy is on top of the world…until Fletcher’s abusive coaching pushes him to his limits, and beyond.

Anyone who’s as ever pursued a creative calling with passion, especially in the music world, will find Whiplash a riveting, suspenseful, and emotionally difficult watch. The nerves, the competition, the compulsion to be the best and the odds against ever achieving that—these elements are almost painfully well realized, and left me at once sympathetic with Andy’s struggle and wanting to beat some sense into him. It is a streamlined and utterly engrossing film. Teller is convincing and accessible as the uncertain but driven Andy, and Simmons is perfectly cast as the foul-mouthed, horrible Fletcher. The production is assured, and the jazz score is intense.

Alas, it has its problematic side. Granted the jazz music world is probably male-dominated, but this is another film about greatness that also “happens” to be a film about men. The only substantive female role is Andy’s girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), who is dismissed as a distraction; I wanted this to be thematic commentary, but I’m afraid it’s just Hollywood tokenism. More annoyingly, Whiplash purports to critique the appalling behavior of its characters, but really it’s slyly celebrating it, if not in fact condoning the problematic theory at the core of its narrative.

I’m torn on this film. It is exceedingly well done, and the ending—Andy’s final performance—is masterfully engineered and highly satisfying. The climactic scenes left me breathless and moved me deeply. But, strong as its narrative is, I wish it had been more sure-handed with its messaging, which muddles its cautionary tone with a dispiriting, mean-streak aftertaste.

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