{Reel Reviews} Whiplash Film Review: The Pursuit of Perfection

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Tweetable Takeaway: Bloody drumsticks and electrifying performances drum up Whiplash as one of the best of the year.

By: , Contributor

What separates the great artists of all time from the mediocre?  Does it take hours of practice until your fingers bleed?  A refusal to give up?  Or J.K. Simmons chucking a chair at you while he curses you and insults your upbringing?  The movie would argue all of the above.

Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, a drummer at a music school who yearns to be one of the greats.  While practicing drums one day, Andrew is noticed by superstar teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).  Fletcher invites Andrew to be a part of his jazz band, and success appears to be in reach for Andrew.

Too bad Fletcher turns out to be one mean son of a gun.  Whiplash cuts right to the chase in every scene, much like Fletcher himself.  He’s a character who accepts nothing less than perfection.  An early scene features a brass player who doesn’t know if he is playing in key or not.  Fletcher cuts him from the band immediately, insulting his weight for good measure.  When it’s Andrew’s turn to show Fletcher what he’s got, there is nothing less than an audible gulp.  An even bigger gulp when Andrew can’t play to Fletcher’s liking.  “Mm, not my tempo,” Fletcher says over and over again.  When Andrew still can’t play the right tempo, things become even more heated.  Fletcher screams, chucks a chair, slaps Andrew, all in the name of getting Andrew to tell him if he is drumming too fast or too slow.

Instead of discouraging Andrew, Fletcher seems to fuel in him the drive to do better.  After all, being in this band might just be Andrew’s ticket to glory.  Fletcher’s teaching methods are brutal, abusive even, but are they what Andrew needs to push himself to brilliance, to perfection?   Whiplash lets the viewer decide.

Both the joy and agony of this film come from seeing the pair pitted against one another.  The conflict is escalated to a near unbearable degree, to the point where this moviegoer was sweating in his chair nearly as much as Andrew whaling on the cymbals.  Andrew is as dedicated to staying in the band as Fletcher is to achieving perfection.

The movie never shies away from the tough moments.  If Fletcher is going to chew someone out, we’re going to experience every unbearable second of it.  If Andrew is going on a first date, it doesn’t cut through all the awkward relationship building, the movie puts the audience right there in the thick of it.  We get to see Andrew’s steady departure from the human race as he instead focuses on becoming a great drummer.  There is a certain irony in Andrew’s determination to be remembered by humans for all of time but neglecting fellow humans while actually alive and on this planet.  The cost of being a genius is high, to be sure, but Andrew inflicts the pain on himself throughout the movie, in hopes that being great will follow.

Much like procuring the perfect performance consumed Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan, so too does Andrew push himself to the brink to achieve what in all likelihood is an impossible standard set by Fletcher.  This is a movie that is focused every step of the way, down to every character, every line, and every drumbeat.  Miles Teller shines, but J.K. Simmons positively radiates as that asshole teacher we all had at one time or another (if not multiplied by ten or a hundred).  One could only imagine the joyful image of pitting Simmons’ Fletcher against R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.  No doubt the building would burn down around the two.  Whiplash is a movie that explores what it means to be great, and entertains like hell in the process.  I give Whiplash 4.5 bloody drumsticks out of 5.

Score:  4.5 out of 5

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Wil lives, breathes, and loves movies. On applications he will often list the movie theater as his second residence, and the usher as his emergency contact.
Twitter: @bilDoper

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