We open on blackness and the sound of drums. The energy that is so pervasive throughout the film builds up for the first time, the rhythm increases in complexity, speed, precision—we are slammed into silence and the opening shot of the film, a claustrophobic peek down the hallway at nineteen-year-old Andrew Neiman sweating over his kit. The voyeuristic lens then leans closer, slowly, over time, and once again—the drumming.
Whiplash is a film that bears with it an ever-pervasive rhythm, and while it’s one that modulates and dives and turns, it is most certainly a constant. The editing, the cinematography, the narrative arc—everything here is pretty much as cohesive as a film can possibly be. What’s particularly impressive is how all the shots move and cut to the soundtrack not in a corny, music video way, but in a way that feels deeply thought-out and nuanced.
That’s not to say that Whiplash doesn’t have a few music video-esque moments. But when these moments do come round each trope only pops up once, and at such pivotal moments that elements which would otherwise be corny become almost necessary. I do honestly believe that this is a mark of filmmaking at its best—tropes are tropes for a reason after all, and if you can use them effectively within a strong repertoire, then more for you.
The same sentiment can be leant to the characters in this film. For the most part, Neiman is your stereotypical ‘I wanna be great’ underdog that you’d expect to find in a film like this. And J K Simmons’s Fletcher is the angry teacher with seemingly good motivations that we’ve seen before. And yet neither one is at all what you’d expect—or, at least, the way the film approaches these two characters, and what it chooses to reveal about them, is not what we have come to expect from a film with a premise that would lend itself well to a feel-good film.
Instead, Chazelle decides to tell in Whiplash a truthful coming-of-age story, if a coming-of-age story at all. This is a film focussed on two unapologetically flawed characters who never fully redeem themselves, and who grow and change in only some ways. In many instances, the consequences of their decisions remain constant; there is no redemption. This is a film where choices and mistakes matter, and writer/director Damien Chazelle doesn’t go out of his way to defend any of what happens. We see Neiman at the dinner table spout a bunch of angst at his family about what he values to be success. We see how his path and his choices affect his romantic pursuits. We see how the mentor Fletcher acts—and at many points we’re left entirely on our own to conclude his motivations. There’s a whole bunch of grey in everything both these characters are doing, and there doesn’t seem to be a correct judgement to make. The film for sure isn’t doing any of the judging on our behalf.
In every piece of conversation and action, there’s a rhythm and a sense of minimalism. The repeated claustrophobic framing of Neiman when he’s alone. An entire plot point in a text on a locked phone screen. A series of quick shots of a family environment, small details that build a whole. One pivotal character who appears in all of about four scenes, yet remains as clear in my mind as any other. The dialogue is all so simple too, and the interactions are often repetitive, but not in a way that belabours any point—rather, the recurring nature of everything accentuates the build of tension all the way up to the film’s astounding finale.
The final scene of this film is perhaps the most tense I’ve ever been in a cinema, moreso even than in Under The Skin, and moreso maybe than during that brilliant interview scene in my 2012 film of the year, The Master.
I want to go see Whiplash again. And then again, and then again. I want to stew over the characters, be immersed in the congruent movement of it all, the cinematic motifs, the gorgeous jazz music. I want it all. I want it all again. I want to watch J K Simmons yell homophobic slurs for another hundred minutes, and I want to watch Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman bleed all over his drumkit. I want to sit down in a warm cinema seat, cider in hand, and ask myself: how far is too far for success?