I think it’s safe to say that ‘Whiplash’ was that little film that could this year, that one film that came out of nowhere, that small indie that everyone fell in love with and came up from obscurity to become a legit Oscar contender, even walking away with three Oscar wins. There’s almost always one every year, but I don’t think anyone would have called this one a year ago. No, a film about an angry teacher and an overzealous drum student doesn’t scream Oscar.
In fact, when I first heard of the film all I could think of was ‘Drumline’…and I scoffed.
But, ‘Whiplash’ proved to be more than that.
Now, I’m going to start this by saying that I really, really liked this movie and many aspects of it. Its spitfire editing is remarkably inspired and sends the film spiraling in all sorts of directions in the best possible ways. Miles Teller is a revelation of desperate aspirations, practically bleeding all over every frame, even learning to play the drums for the role and doing so with such violent passion. The soundscapes are delicately created, blistering in the eardrums and creating such texture in every scene. Yes, J.K. Simmons seethes all over the place, and that final scene is beyond words incredible.
BUT, I take issue with a certain aspect of the film, and because of that I can’t call this perfect.
It’s all kind of one-note.
That note is played to the hilt and delivers with striking intensity, but layers that the film flirts with exposing it never really delves into completely. Simmons, while a monster of a performer here, has such a clichéd character to work with, with no actual depth, that he almost blocks the film’s storytelling ability because he becomes this constant reminder that the means to the end is so…flat. The formula here is extremely generic, leaving a lot to be desired in exploration of themes and characters, because everyone portrayed here is a rather generic variation of the same characters we see in all of these kinds of films; empty, one-note incarnations of what is perceived to be ‘drive’, ‘passion’ and ‘aspiration’.
I know what most of you are thinking right now...
But hear me out, because I'm about to start saying some nice things!
You see, this is where ‘Whiplash’ finds its saving grace, for as I detailed out in one of the above paragraphs, so many of the film’s assets create a real sense of atmosphere here. It’s a generic story told in a very ‘non-traditional’ way, and that helps, a lot. The editing, the blistering performances, the almost horror-like cinematography, the way that Damien Chazelle pulls in every frame to dynamic force; crashing into the audience as it were…all of these aspects give ‘Whiplash’ an edge that it almost doesn’t deserve and thus causes the film to appear to be more that it is.
I’ve talked a bit before about how it’s not the story you tell but the way you tell it that matters, and ‘Whiplash’ is proof of that. I still don’t like the character of Fletcher much, for I find him almost offensively one-note, and I found the whole ‘crying over a student’ scene to be extremely forced and ill-fitted to the film, but Teller anchors the film with a tremendously layered performance that finds such depth in Andrew, his dreams, goals and flaws.
When he hugs his father and then turns around…just…UGH!
So, in closing; I like ‘Whiplash’ a lot. It’s not a masterpiece, but it can appear as one thanks to some astonishingly composed dressing, but it doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, for its masterfully told; and sometimes that’s more than enough.