Whiplash Review

Warning: Minor Spoilers

One Long Sentence Review: This master class in acting by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller will have you cringing in your seat as the hatred boils off the screen, but this is one occasion when being uncomfortable is what makes the film so good.

PPH Rating: 10.0

Whiplash is the story of aspiring jazz drummer Andrew, played by Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent, Fantastic Four 2015), and his experiences at a prestigious music conservatory with Terence Fletcher, the conductor of the country’s top jazz ensemble. J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man Trilogy, Juno, Thank You For Smoking) plays Fletcher, and I’ll go ahead and make my prediction that he will not only win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance, but that he deserves to by a mile.

Fletcher is an extreme version of the teacher, coach or perhaps family member we’ve all had: the one who demands perfection and pushes you through constant attack.  As Fletcher says in one of Whiplash’s best scenes, the two most harmful words ever invented are “Good Job.”  He’s out to find the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich and frequent references are made to a story which claims that, as a teenager, Charlie Parker had a gong thrown at his head, and it was that episode that drove him to greatness.        

Fletcher takes this story to heart, hurling chairs, drum sets, and verbal abuse at his students, often transitioning from quiet and menacing to explosive and bellowing in a heartbeat. This erraticism gives his character that much more of a fearsome feel: you never know what might come next.  Andrew understands what Fletcher is trying to do, and he responds by pushing himself harder until, in several scenes, the drum set is covered in blood from Andrew’s flayed and raw hands.

But Andrew is no Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, and as Fletcher continues to play mind games with his students, Andrew’s life falls apart.  I won’t spoil what follows in the second half of the film, but while the general story progression is fairly typical and predictable, the manner in which the plot is progressed is a constant surprise.  In the first few scenes the abuse perpetrated and suffered is understood merely as part of the characters and plot, but as the movie advances the central question driving of what it takes to become great soon transcends the screen through the force of J.K. Simmons acting. 

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such a tangible, visceral hatred on screen before as the feelings that Simmons and Teller are able to convey.  I wanted to hate them both, and I wanted to pity them both.  I wanted to laugh at the creativity of their insults and swearing, except I was too engrossed in the world of Whiplash. Like Andrew’s fellow band members, I felt compelled to look down and pretend I wasn’t witnessing the monumental clash between teacher and student. And much like them, I couldn’t look away - morbidly drawn to a car crash in motion. 

Aside from the acting, the films music, both as played by the musicians play and as a background score, really help to immerse the audience in this world of people for whom jazz is life.

I’ve given this film a perfect 10.0 rating, and I’ll stand by that both as a statement on how good the film is, but also on how good it is for the PPH rating scale employed in these reviews, for Whiplash is a deeply philosophical film.  While not perfect, I don’t think that a film has to be perfect to receive the highest rating possible, whether it’s three four or five stars, or a 10 out of 10.  Rather, Whiplash deserves a top rating because at no point during the 106 minute running time was the audience’s suspense of disbelief broken, and there is nothing that I can point to that clearly needs fixing or could have been better.

The philosophical issue around which the story revolves is that of greatness, and of what it takes to become great and what greatness is worth.  Would it be better to live a long but average life and die unremembered except by close friends, then quickly forgotten? Or would it be preferable to die from a drug overdose at 35 but still be talked about decades later as one of the Greats, capital G?  Andrew answers that it’s better to be one of the Greats.

But how does one become a Great?  Fletcher clearly believes that it’s by pushing talented students to their limits and seeing which ones quit.  “Good Job” leads to mediocrity, something Fletcher believes is easily proven by the quality of the jazz albums played in Starbucks. 

At one point, Andrew asks Fletcher if there is a limit to pushing someone, a line beyond which Charlie Parker doesn’t become Charlie Parker, because at some point – early on - a teacher pushed too hard and caused him to quit in frustration.  Fletcher’s response is no, because whilst a really good student might quit, the true Greats don’t have a line beyond which sacrifice is no longer worth it.  Jazz is life for these characters, and as Andrew’s life falls apart it’s difficult to say he’s making the wrong choice.  He has the conviction of his beliefs, and he is acting on those convictions, doing what it takes to become a Great.

Behind the question of greatness lies the question of what matters in life and what gives life meaning.  If we’re all going to die, does it really matter who we dated or how much time we spent with friends, if we have no legacy to leave behind?

Whiplash left me, and others I’ve talked to, feeling uncomfortable long after the film’s concluding scenes, because it made us question our own beliefs and choices in life, and how we spent our time.  For that reason alone, Whiplash is worth the price of a ticket.

Metric (Total Possible) Score (9.75/10) Explanation
Money Point (1) 1 1.0 = Own it
.75 = See it in cinemas
.5 = Cinemas off-peak
.25 = Rent it later
0 = Skip it
Enjoyability (3) 3 Sense of satisfaction, fun, and keeping you tuned into the screen.
Artistry (3) 3 Directing, Script, Acting
Political/Philosophical Value (3) 3 Prevalence of interesting political or philosophical themes