Even during a year of remarkable movies, Whiplash stands as a monument to cinematic craft. It’s an extended thrill, enabled by great acting, brisk scripting, and knife’s-edge editing. It opens with a black screen and drum taps that steadily grow from annoying punctuation to frantic rhythm. It’s the perfect setup to a series of riveting performances from the dark-rimmed world of music school desperation. Ultimately, Whiplash is a complicated psychological profile told in purely cinematic terms — sounds, pictures, and lots to think about afterward.
Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) plays Andrew, a 19-year-old music school student hell-bent on becoming the greatest jazz drummer since Buddy Rich. But his path to fame is beset by the tightly wound presence of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who rules the school with a sadistic conductor’s fist and a shockingly abusive voice. Convinced that only fiery trials beget jazz geniuses, Fletcher perpetuates the old-school myth of perfection via coercion, though, truth to tell, Andrew’s raw ambition makes him almost happily submissive. Of course, the worm begins to turn — that’s the point of the film — but during the explosive finale, you may not know who won. No matter; you’ll walk away feeling riveted regardless.
Unlike Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, another film about artistic obsession, Whiplash rarely needs to step inside anybody’s psyche. There have been protests against the realism of the movie’s portrayal of music school politics, but they are silly complaints. This is a story about the wages of success when the terms become absolute. (Surprise! People become monstrous.) Additionally, the twin performances by Teller and Simmons are among the best of the year — triumphant, ambivalent portraits. At the end, I was holding my breath and wasn’t sure if it was for happiness or anger. It was probably both.