Monday, 12 January 2015

Review of Whiplash (2014)

"Whiplash" works because it is a film about understanding. It places us in the company of two very different characters and by the end, we feel as though their arcs have been fully drawn, and an understanding, or acknowledgement of sorts has been reached, where another film may have settled on base Mannichean motivations. It also works because the writer/director Damien Chazelle has created a piece of primal, almost tribal film-making. It is about a young jazz drummer studying at Shaffer Music Conservatory, Andrew (Miles Teller), who yearns to be "one of the greats", as he puts it. He practices alone in a room. returns alone to his apartment at night, and seemingly does not do much else, until one day Fletcher (J.K Simmons), a seasoned and spiteful music tutor, spots him and gives him a place in his band. Andrew has waited his whole life for this.

Fletcher, it is revealed, is a creature of pure malice. Simmons' (sure to be Oscar-nominated) performance reminded me of Peter Capaldi's spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker from the TV series "Thick Of It", although R. Lee Emery's drill sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket" may be the more recognisable comparison. Every other word from his mouth seems to be a profanity, a sexual exclamation, or a combination of the two. He quickly browbeats Andrew, brings him to the brink of tears, playing malicious mind-games. It is here that one should pay attention to the dialogue; look at how sharply the exchanges are worded, and how Fletcher so incessantly picks apart what Andrew says.

Fittingly, this is Simmons playing new notes, a sort of fleshed out version of the kind of persona he hinted at in his work in Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. It's also the kind of performance that tends to overshadow a film- as I say, it will likely net an Oscar nomination, and rightly so. But the core and heart of the film is Andrew. Aside from his performance in Project X, he is an actor I am unfamiliar with, but I truly felt like he bared his soul for this film, emotionally and physically. The nature of the drumming he does is brutal and intense, and as best I could tell it was his drumming and not the work of a stand-in or CGI.

But more than this, the film is the most wonderful example of the Bildungsroman, and it all hinges on the fact that Teller is a supremely drawn character. I was reminded of Patrick Fugit's intrepid Rolling Stone report in "Almost Famous", and the eponymous Jack in A.M Home's masterful debut novel; two beautiful, believable characters. He navigates the pitfalls of early adulthood with as much confusion and guile as the rest of us did, but he also carries at his core and undervalued characteristic in American films; determination. I believed that he wanted to be the best drummer he could possibly be, and he carried me along with him. The fantastically drawn scene where he tells his potential love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that he cannot be with her because he must prioritise his drumming almost seemed like an affront to all those films where the principle interest of the teenage characters is sex. He even has a loving relationship with his dad (Paul Reiser). How rare is that in a film about teenagers!

This determination also creates an unusual dynamic with Fletcher. Andrew, understandably, resents the barbaric treatment Fletcher dishes out, but almost against himself he can't help but be drawn in by how Fletcher pushes him into being the best drummer he's capable of being. As I have said, the film is about the pair trying to understand each other, and this is principally a film about understanding. When we do learn about Fletcher's philosophy, we nod along with Andrew.

The film is also as physical as the drum solos Andrew puts himself through. It has a constant, under-lit, high contrast look throughout which has the effect of making us feel like we're constantly in the backrooms, rehearsing, and never in the limelight; a nice mirroring of Andrew's feelings throughout. It is also the work of a director who knows how every single scene, every single shot, should play out, whether it's by shaky-cam, or mounted tripod, or with a shot arrangement to match the throbbing drum solos (in the magnificent, nine-minute finale). Were this not the year of "Birdman"'s one-shot tour-de-force, this would be a lock for best editing and perhaps best cinematography.

Finally, the film has a commitment to credibility and character which is unusual in American underdog movies like this. There is the feeling that at any point, the film could have turned into a thriller, or aped the Rocky structure with the "will he win the final concert?!" tropes. To its credit, it does not. Two-thirds in, it completely abandons structure and instead pursues the course of action that would have followed, instead of egging the audience into anticipation. As a result, it's far more tense and taut (I was wriggling in my seat in places) than if we were being dragged along by third-act revelations and the like. And it most certainly does not settle on some hokey epigram like "follow your dreams".

I believed this film completely. I believed the characters, the scenarios, the relationships, how it was made, and the things the film stood for, and it was a joy to believe in them. It moved me, exhausted me, touched me and thrilled me. It's a faultless exercise in technical and emotional content, and a supreme piece of entertainment, one that will, if there is justice in the world, go on to become a modern classic.

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