Every year, there are a massive number of films that are released. Many of them will simply be passable, some will be terrible, and a select few will be great. If we're lucky, we'll experience the one film that showcases the magic that cinema has the potential to produce. In an even more rare case, you might find two that leave you in this sense of awe. Distributors generally know when they have a secret weapon in their hands, and they usually come out in the final months of the year in order to be on our minds for the Oscar season. However, it's quite rare for the month of October to showcase one of these. Yet, this happens to be exactly the case for writer/director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, which was expanded into a full-length feature from a short film by the same name. This might be a drama, but it also happens to be one of the most intense motion pictures of the year.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a freshman drummer at one of the greatest musical institutions in the country. Driven by his hopes and dreams, he constantly pushes himself further to better himself. After being approached by the highly renounced Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), he enrolls within a cutthroat jazz band, where he will be pushed past his limits in order to be considered for a permanent position. Fletcher is willing to stop at nothing in order to realize the right student's potential.
Whiplash is an intense character study that places some serious themes within the spotlight, as Andrew tries his best to reach perfection within the eyes of Fletcher. We get the chance to witness his family dynamic, as he tries to adjust his life in order to accommodate practices. Andrew doesn't want to be a good drummer; he wants to be a revolutionary one. In order to reach perfection, he has to push himself past all of his own limits. We're left with a young man who has such a passionate love for his craft, that he's willing to literally put his blood, sweat, and tears into his music. This is a character that we can not only sympathize with, but truly understand. Anybody who has had a great love for a craft that is willing to make sacrifices for will instantly be rooting for Andrew. Once we're introduced to the brutal Fletcher, he comes off as more of a football coach or a fitness trainer than he does a music instructor. His scenes with Andrew prove to be so incredibly tense, that you'll find your jaw clenching consistently throughout the picture. Fletcher also has a strict vision of perfection, which lends to plenty of captivating conflict.
As the film continues, Andrew begins to adapt to his environment. He started as a genuine young man, but ultimately transforms into a thick-skinned artist with a bold passion, whose craft just might take control of him. This is such a likable protagonist, that it absolutely tears us apart to see him destroy himself in order to achieve perfection. Just when we believe that Andrew has earned his spot in Fletcher's jazz band, he's once again being tested in a humiliating fashion. Part of the reason why these sequences are so difficult to watch is that Andrew is crafted as a person that we genuinely care for. We truly want to see him achieve his dreams, but the psychological mind games with Fletcher truly immerse us in the world of the stressful and professional landscape of this jazz insanity. Just when we think that Whiplash is about to take a shortcut, Chazelle manages to surprise us with a bold approach to the plot. This is a genuinely well-crafted drama, where we fear that anything can happen.
This might not be an action film, nor is it a horror flick. Yet, it manages to possess one of the most intense final acts of the year. The final fifteen minutes are sure to leave you grasping your armrests. Whiplash doesn't hold back, as it brings Fletcher and Andrew's conflicts to a head. Chazelle doesn't hold back, as he manages to deliver such an impactful finale with an extremely limited use of dialogue. Rather, he manipulates the audience in order to maximize on the picture's electrifying tone. The film's high energy begins to rub off on the viewer, as it becomes increasingly difficult to stay still in the theater chair. Don't feel ashamed if you nearly fall out of your chair or if you have a noticeable increased heart rate, as Whiplash transforms into an unforgettable adrenaline rush that proves to contain one of the best sequences you will see at the movies this year.
While writer/director Damien Chazelle's screenplay is wonderful, the performances truly elevate the picture to a whole new level. Miles Teller is stunning as Andrew. He manages to make this role so incredibly genuine, that we feel an undeniably natural connection to him. J.K. Simmons is exceptional in the role of Fletcher. He's undeniably intimidating, as he can often come off as an antagonist. However, the sequences where he humiliates his students feel so brutally authentic, that it will surely leave your eyes glued to the screen. These two performances are absolutely outstanding when paired together, as they make for a tremendous display of character and interaction. Even though Teller and Simmons are in the spotlight, even the supporting performances work extremely well in this wonderful drama.
Chazelle doesn't have much experience as a director, yet he manages to deliver a masterful visual experience with Whiplash. The cinematography has a very classic look to it that lends itself very well to the nature of the plot. Once we truly get into the more intense drumming sequences, the visual style focuses on the anxious elements. These close-ups on Andrew as he drums make for some great scenes. However, the audio design is what makes this a truly unforgettable experience. The precision and power heard from each drum is outstanding, as they bring an additional dimension to the picture's tone that wouldn't have been there otherwise.
While Fletcher's methods are controversial, this is a film about passion and doing whatever it takes to be the best. Few filmmakers are able to attain the masterful execution that writer/director Damien Chazelle has managed to achieve. A large amount of the picture's success is rooted in its exceedingly genuine lead character and his engrossingly brutal mentor. If the final act doesn't leave you in awe, then nothing will. The performances are absolutely fantastic, as Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons bring these characters to life in the best way possible. It might only be October, but this is most certainly a contender for the best film of the year. Whiplash is a remarkable piece of cinematic brilliance, and a welcome addition to the DVD Talk Collector Series.