The world of Whiplash seems to exist solely within the confines of protagonist Andrew Neiman’s fevered mind. A world of close-ups of blood-soaked cymbals and drums, blistered fingers, and sweaty pained faces; a world soaked in hot yellow-to-orange lighting that counterbalances dark interior sets whose existence is only truly perceptible in the occasional wider shots; a world of pain, anger and undiluted, unrestrained testosterone-fueled passion, in all its grace and ugliness. In both its visual style and themes of pushing oneself to the very limits of sanity and well-being to reach artistic perfection, Whiplash echoes Black Swan. And while he doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of Aronofsky’s best film, director Damien Chazelle still cuts through the archetypal American story of success earned through hard work and sacrifice, and draws out conclusions made all the more troubling by his relatively ambiguous attitude towards them.
As noted previously, there is very little world outside of the studios, concert halls and classrooms Andrew (Miles Teller) practices; so much so that scenes with exterior characters such as his mild-mannered single father and his would-be girlfriend almost seem like temporary distractions from what really matters – which is indeed how Andrew comes to see them. Bombarded with misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic insults and threats by his feared instructor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), Andrew finds his very identity challenged as well as his talent. From the moment Fletcher sweet-talks him with an anecdote about Charlie Parker that will be repeated at least twice throughout the film (and that jazz experts and critics were quick to point out as false), he is implicitly comparing the two and suggesting that he may have the same potential for greatness. Thus, much like Kevin Spacey’s Buddy Ackerman in Swimming With Sharks or, more appropriately, R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann in Full Metal Jacket, Fletcher’s sadistic psychological and physical torture is justified as a Darwinian tool for natural selection of the fittest for the job. Any outside elements that could get in the way of perfection are to be discarded, for nothing must exist in the musician’s world but himself and his music. Before he knows it, Andrew has both adopted Fletcher’s consequentialist philosophy and even started aping a little of his bullying behaviour as a defense mechanism, notably using it to snark at college athlete relatives of his during a dinner where his drumming career is measured against their more worldly successes. Yet Miles Teller’s underplayed demeanour in both this scene and the breakup scene suggest Andrew is acting less out of conviction than out of fear.
Chazelle and editor Tom Cross’s near-constant espousal of Andrew’s sensations blurs the audience’s perspective on the matter. In uncomfortably tight shots and skewed angles, we feel Fletcher’s slaps and violent barking of orders, but we also feel the unstoppable pulse of life that only grows stronger every time his sticks hit the drums, the channeling of every injury and humiliation into their corresponding beat. It all reaches a pinnacle in the film’s climactic concert where Fletcher’s final attempt at humiliating Andrew is answered with a long defiant, masterly improvisation during which he and his drum kit are so compactly glued together by the framing and editing to the music that they appear to become one single entity. Liberation and greatness are thus achieved less for their own sake than for that of petty revenge and one-upmanship. The price for producing great art, Chazelle suggests, is the very soul it comes from. Whether or not that price is worth paying is left for the viewer to decide.
Whiplash looks and feels both as exhilarating as the titular Hank Levy composition and as unrelentingly brutal as that title suggests. Like many Jazz drum performances, it often repeats variations on the same theme; each new development forces you to pay attention and carefully evaluate what you have just heard and seen and what you are currently hearing and seeing. As perhaps the most sadistic teacher this side of Miss Trunchbull, J. K. Simmons’s performance matches that tempo perfectly. Just when you think you’ve got his rotation between fatherly mentoring and explosive abuse figured out, he modifies his game just enough for you to reconsider your opinion of him for at least long enough until the next outburst, and then it’s back to square one again. Like a lean, athletic black panther, he is always on the prowl, never giving away more than what he wants you to see. Faced with such a controlled and controlling presence, it would be easy for a director to lean on it and let it take over the rest of the film but Chazelle wisely keeps the focus on Andrew’s absorption of Fletcher’s lessons, leading Teller and Simmons in a perilous and ever-changing duel whose outcome remains uncertain, because it was never meant to end.