At times, Whiplash doesn’t always feel like a story about an aspiring drummer or about music. Most of the time it is a horror film. No, it doesn’t have a monster creeping under the bed or a demonic doll. Instead it has a human being, someone that could be teaching today. This realism, and the thoughts of having a teacher that vicious in the past, is what makes this film so compelling and terrifying.
Whiplash follows Andrew (Miles Teller), a first year in music school who is trying to become one of the best jazz drummers of all-time. We meet Andrew in a training room. A tracking shot moves slowly, like a serpent in the grass, as it closes in on the student as he works on the music. The camera reaches him and he looks up to see Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who is the conductor for the studio band and is inquiring Andrew to see if he is playing in order to try and score a spot there.
Much of what Simmons does as Fletcher works so well because of the uneasy feeling you get when you see him. When he acts, it generally is like a normal human being, almost like Norman Bates making small-talk in the lobby with Marion Crane. But there is something underneath the surface, and while it isn’t a grave maternal love, it is instead the drive to have the best jazz band around.
At first he isn’t vicious; instead, he is just another hard teacher at a school demanding perfection. But when Andrew joins the studio band, and sits behind the first chair, he realizes that the monster has him in his grasp as he tears down a student for not knowing whether he was flat or sharp (he was neither, but you can’t have his pansy ass in Fletcher’s band).
Writer/director Damien Chazelle always knows how to pull the tension out of the scene. It helps to have the tempo up and the band playing, but what drives the film into your gut is the camerawork and the backed in feel that you get by watching it. You are in the room with them and Fletcher is tearing you down with Andrew. In the crucial scene when Andrew stands up to play the drum for the first time, there isn’t music playing (since he can’t get past the first measure) and the pressure is on.
Chazelle works the camera like a thumb pressing down on you, and he never feels the need to lift it off. The camera pushes against you as Fletcher and Andrew go back and forth, it also helps that Teller plays the role so well that you want to be apathetic to him, but his harsh and brutish personality makes it near impossible. But he is the one you have to cheer for because the next great movie monster, Fletcher, is not any better and makes you hate him more.
It’s beautiful to watch cinema work this way. Chazelle isn’t relying on jump scares, monsters in the closet, or some otherworldly phenomenon to keep the audience uneasy (his previous writing credits include The Grand Piano and The Last Exorcism Part II), but he uses the lens and the powerful performances by his leads to instill fear in the audience in a Hitchcockian style that was amazing to watch.
Whiplash carries an incredible score (sorry Birdman, but these jazz drums win) and has two of the better performances of the year, but what worked so well for me was how well Chazelle (in his second feature ever) was able to use the camera so well and create a horrifying experience that had me at the edge of my seat the entire time.
This film never allows you to feel comfortable, and while maybe deep down you also want to go out and hug your dad like Andrew does during his Carnegie Hall performance, the movie is so good that you’ll head back for more also.