” There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”
I’ve been on a pretty good streak this week finding some real gems. Whiplash is another movie that got some buzz when it came out, but I feel it had the unfortunate circumstance of being in theaters the same time as Birdman, as the two movies were released only a week apart. Both movies share some similar themes and lean towards the indie side, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Whiplash had some of its momentum stomped by the bigger hit. Regardless, I loved both movies, and I was really impressed by Whiplash. It’s a unique story with a strong vision behind it coupled with tremendous performances from everyone involved. It also brings up some really cool subject matter that isn’t often explored in film today, and it even resonated with me personally in a number of ways.
I should say that I couldn’t stop comparing this movie to Ex Machina while I was watching. Both movies give off really focused, minimalist vibes with really cool visual choices. They both have a young, talented, awkward protagonist striving for greatness while working under his idol who serves as a twisted kind of mentor. In Ex Machina, the subject was computer programming and AI, while Whiplash had the added benefit of being about music. Director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle was able to include some great drum sessions to highlight the protagonist’s attempted rise to greatness, whereas Ex Machina focused more on ethics and dialogue to get at the character’s struggle. This is just some observation I had, so I thought I’d share. Both movies are excellent works and maybe suggest a new type of plot structure becoming popular.
So what did I like about Whiplash? Primarily the direction behind it. It’s clear the Damien Chazelle was really passionate about getting this project off the ground, as he had to produce a short film of the same name just to get the funding for the full length. He based the main character’s struggles off his own experiences in music at an elite university, and there’s a real sense of heart to the entire film. The auditory elements are fantastic, and I think the percussive nature of protagonist Andrew’s drum set makes the film a lot more powerful and visceral than any other instrument would have accomplished. The images of Andrew’s bleeding hands dipped in ice water, continually bandaged, and even spilling all onto the cymbals during performance are some of the most powerful in the film, and they stick with me more than anything else in the movie. Chazelle demonstrates some real talent, and I’m excited to see what work he can pull out in the future.
The script is also phenomenal. It’s a pretty simple story, Andrew Neiman’s training at an elite university to become one of the greatest drummers of his time, but it’s really passionate and honest. I loved (and was heartbroken by) how the romantic subplot was so toned down. Melissa Benoist is only in the film for about 10 minutes total, and Andrew doesn’t end up with her at the end. He’s blown his shot for personal connection in pursuit of the music, and there’s no coming back. I think that’s why this movie works so well for me. It’s focused. Andrew’s struggle with his musical training is central to everything: every element of the plot, the visuals, the audio. From start to finish, you see a terrific character arc that starts out with high stakes and only gets better. You realize the inner conflict as Andrew has to figure out what life he wants to live and if it’s worth it. Will he settle for being a great drummer, or will he become one of the greats?
While Miles Teller gives really strong work as Andrew Neiman, supporting actor J. K. Simmons really steals the show with his portrayal of Terence Fletcher, Andrew’s jazz instructor and ticket to greatness. Fletcher is such a fascinating character, and Simmons brings such gusto to the performance. It’s clear that Chazelle modeled the character after a real-life inspiration, as every line out of Simmons’ mouth feels totally genuine. You see him striving to get greatness out of one of these kids, and it takes him to his breaking point just as it does for Andrew. I also love how the movie never reconciles their relationship, only leaving us with a sort of gray area where anything could happen in the future for these two characters. We’re left without answers, and this is a movie where I’m totally okay with that.
Whiplash is a film that ended up pleasing me just as much as Birdman did a few years ago, perhaps even more so, and it’s a shame that people don’t talk about it as much. Either way, movies like Whiplash are proof that there is still innovative work being done today if you know where to look. Chazelle’s dedication to this film is also an inspiring tale for young filmmakers, and it gives me hope for the future of cinema to come.
Films Left to Watch: 960