Every now and then a pair of films will come out almost simultaneously that share a similarity both in terms of tone and theme. Last week I detailed the great enjoyment that was provided by Steve Carell and co. in Foxcatcher, a film that centres around a young protagonist, talented in their chosen field, who has a complicated and tough relationship with a mentor. Fast forward seven days and I find myself entering the world of Whiplash, a story, this time fictional, that follows this same narrative thread. After the film’s glorious festival run last year I went in with high extremely expectations, hoping that any feelings of plot line deja vu would not detract from what I hoped would be a brilliant picture.
And boy, I was not disappointed. Whiplash tells the story of teenage musician Andrew (Miles Teller), a skilled drummer and first year student at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. Already showing immense promise beyond his early tutelage, Andrew catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the institution’s conductor whose shocking and volatile teaching methods are infamous throughout the student body. Quickly promoted to Fletcher’s personal competition jazz band, both Andrew’s personal and professional life begins to suffer under the strain of Fletcher’s abusive and mentally torturous influence, and the bulk of the film documents the young protagonist’s desperate desire to impress followed by a growing realisation and contempt for what his mentor has turned him in to. When reviewing Foxcatcher I made a point of praising the film’s consistent and maintained level of dread and threat throughout, and exactly the same can be said for the constant presence of tension in Whiplash. The film possesses an extremely relatable edge and taps in to the familiar school psyche of having one particular teacher that you never wanted to let down and were always somewhat anxious around, except in this instance the situation is heightened to a level so severe that what on the surface may sound like a mundane plot turns in to a nerve shredding, captivating battle of wills and sensitivity. The trope of the dysfunctional mentor/mentee relationship is a fairly familiar one in cinema, but there is something about Andrew and Fletcher’s story that is so visceral it feels completely fresh and without a lot of the cliches that often accompany lesser films attempting to display similar situations. Also giving the picture a different and enigmatic vibe is the choice of jazz as the music in question. The fast paced, off beat, at times almost intelligible nature of the music being created within the film adds to its sense of urgency and unpredictability that evokes an almost unbearable tension for the audience. One feels just as nervous watching Andrew attempt to play as the character himself looks on screen, and credit here must be given to the filmmakers for their technical proficiency in making the vitally important drumming sequences look authentic, to me at least. What is so refreshing and interesting about Whiplash is the fact that we usually only get to see these types of narratives in films depicting sports, so to experience these visceral emotions in the world of music makes for a truly captivating watch.
The music itself is arguably Whiplash’s most important character, but the performances of both Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are absolutely integral to the emotional and dramatic power of the picture. Miles Teller as Andrew gives a solid and credible performance, perfectly capturing that essence of an individual with a drive so focused that they are willing to jeopardise their physical and mental well being to achieve their goals. The audience, though not necessarily always liking Andrew, do always feel sympathy for him, and that is testament to Teller’s impressive and nuanced performance. J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, though, is undeniably the star of the show. I am well accustomed to the sinister side of Simmons’ acting through his role as Vernon Schillinger in HBO’s prison drama Oz, and he continues this tone of absolute menace but in much more restrained and underlying fashion. Though Fletcher does not break bones and stab guts as Schillinger so loved to do, Simmons creates an atmosphere of such discomfort and unease when on screen that his intimidation factor is equally as high as the infamous psychotic neo-Nazi he played for television. As Steve Carell has somewhat controversially been nominated in the category of Best Actor rather than Supporting Actor, I cannot imagine Simmons will be threatened by any of his fellow nominees at the Oscars in February.
Overall, I would go so far to say that Whiplash is the best film I have seen so far this awards season. It is a relatively small concept that through expert filmmaking and outstanding individual performances is transformed in to a cinematic experience that speak to the audience on many different levels. Whilst Foxcatcher may have presented a tense realisation of true events, Whiplash has covered more impressibly and more enjoyably all of the themes that both pictures try to explore. These themes including ambition, competition, failure and mental health all combine to create a piece of cinema that shocks, thrills and captivates from beginning to end. An absolute must see.