By Nathan Smith
Although it presents itself as the story of Andrew Nieman, a young college student driven to the edge both musically and psychologically by an intense instructor, Whiplash isn’t really about college, education, or music at all. It’s about torture, and as such, it seems particularly relevant in light of the CIA’s recent reports on their experiments in the subject. I mention the CIA reports not just because of their timeliness but also because if anything, they prove that torture doesn’t extract answers, just like Whiplash unintentionally proves that punishment doesn’t make better artists.
The majority of the film leans heavily on its two main characters: Nieman, played by Miles Teller, and Terence Fisher, played by character actor J.K. Simmons. Teller’s young face lends itself well to his character in Whiplash, but although he’s a talent-to-watch, he hasn’t proved himself quite yet. Simmons, on the other hand, gives a harrowing performance, one which will hopefully cement his status as one of the finest actors working today. But like another film this year, Nightcrawler, Whiplash incorrectly assumes that one great performance is enough to carry an entire movie, and Chazelle lets the rest of the film fall by the wayside. Whiplash‘s extra narrative baggage, particularly a subplot dealing with Andrew’s short-lived romantic relationship, weighs the whole thing down and leaves me wishing it had been stripped to merely the relationship between master and pupil.
After more back-and-forth between Fisher and Nieman, and a ridiculous scene involving a rental car, the movie finally finds its footing, but only once it’s too late. The entire enterprise clicks in the admittedly masterful last scene, which Chazelle directs the hell out of. Unfortunately, that fanfare overpowers the audience so successfully that it’s nearly impossible to remember upon exiting the the theater that the rest of the movie lacks the tension and directorial finesse that makes that scene crackle. The movie seems to have no respect for fundamentals, musically or dramatically, as what saves it in the end, both for Andrew Nieman and for Damien Chazelle, is nothing but a flashy solo. Until this last scene, Chazelle leans toward condemning Fisher and his manic methods, which even result in the suicide of another student, but ultimately he seems to co-sign such enhanced teaching techniques. It might be easier to get behind this argument if the rest of the movie made the case for it, but until the end, all Fisher’s (and Chazelle’s) methods produce are mediocrity. Other than their dearly-coveted solos, the film’s characters seem disinterested in pursuing music with anything close to actual passion, just like Chazelle seems indifferent toward almost everything but the final payoff.
I adored Chazelle’s debut film, 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a sort of Swing Time-by-way-of-Shadows, for imbuing the musical genre with quiet feeling and gentle nuance, as well as for the simplicity with which it approached music. But from the beginning, Whiplash lacks the traits that made their creator’s debut so distinctive. I may be harsh in my criticism, but as Simmons’ character tells us, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'” Based on this film and another project of the director’s from this year, the De Palma-esque thriller Grand Piano, Chazelle seems to have become obsessed with the idea that it takes broken relationships, brutality, and blood to produce great art. What Chazelle ignores is that while these things can produce great art, they don’t ensure it. In the case of Whiplash, the result is only mediocre at best.
Whiplash is directed by Damian Chazelle and stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Rated R. 106 minutes.