Director: Damien Chazelle
Reviewed: 13 August 2015
I don't like that Bobby Knight threw a chair at an athlete in a basketball game or practice. There were always rumors that my HS coach threw a desk once when a state qualifying athlete was late for the second time to practice and had to be kicked off the team publically. In my worst moments, I've berated students and been loud and obnoxious in ways that are infinitely embarrassing and hopefully not collected on film. There were rumors at a previous school I worked at about an overhead projector being tossed out a window to prove a point. Eruptions of fountains of anger and the ideas of brutal mentorship, hazing and hypocrisy, and the pursuit of greatness in art are at the center of Damien Chazelle's lean, often breath-taking film Whiplash with the centerpiece being a battle of wills between conductor/dictator Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) at a conservatory and his pupil of promise Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer with high hopes. The film examines what is necessary to be truly great, with one character positing that a thrown instrument and cathartic challenge: To be great is to be pushed past your own limits. I think of the professor played by Stellan Skarsgaard in Good Will Hunting: "I was great BECAUSE I was pushed!" How much is too much is not a question that this film is really interested in engaging though, and by thinly developing Andrew and Fletcher, its third act holds it back from greatness.
Chazelle revels in establishing the mystique of Fletcher, a shadowy figure who haunts the hallways of the conservatory, intense in his nearly-military running of his classroom, frightening in his berating of his students (all male), but the implication is that he gets results, so he's allowed to be a monster. Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his visceral work here, and his relentlessness is shocking and impossible to look away from onscreen. Teller struggles more to convey Andrew's interiority, partially because though he's nearly in every screen, and the story is ostensibly about his journey, he does not narrate, he rarely talks through his thinking, and he remains a bit of a cipher. He loves to drum, drums until his hands bleed, and there's a bit about him trying to make his father (Paul Rieser) proud. However, the film suffers because of its thinly developed characters and plot contrivances in the last third. How long would a teacher like Fletcher be allowed to threaten his students? In the age of cell phones and secret videos, his vicious, virulent attacks would be broadcast more publically, I would think in this era.
Whiplash wants us to consider if some great art and greatness comes from being pushed past your limits. However, why does that pushing have to be so degrading? There's little interest or explanation for Fletcher's homophobia, anti-Semitism, or just plain nastiness, and without any context, it just seems like bullying to me. There's always moments of truth and confrontation in the classroom and as a coach of athletes, but does fear and threat of violence really carry someone into the next plane of their work? I keep coming back to the idea of is it better to be feared or loved, and the adage that fear lasts longer than love. The ending of the film is intentionally open-ended with the idea that the both pupil and master could be right, though I know less about how the pupil differs from the master here. The editing is truly wonderful (also Academy Award winning) with its musical, drum-beat punctuating rhythms, and for a film that seems to occur mostly in rehearsal spaces or performances around the edges of darkness, Chazelle delivers quite a potent experience despite its flaws.