Whiplash, much like the percussion at its core, relies on collisions, namely those between its two central characters: Juilliard conductor Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons) and aspiring great, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller).
Whilst this is very much Simmons’ film, each scene with him is both a joy and a trial – hopefully this will propel him from his self proclaimed “that guy from that thing” status to something nearer the household name he deserves – the revelation here is Teller, as the abrasive and quietly vulnerable Neiman, all raw nerves and simmering ambition. Prior to this Teller has been stuck stifled in poorly judged, and received, teen bait (Project X, Divergent) and poorly watched gems (The Spectacular Now). Whiplash combines the financial successes of the former with the artistic successes of the latter and, importantly, gives its two stars a proper audience.
Damien Chazelle’s direction is rapid and precise during the films many performance sequences, the shot jumping from snare to cymbal and back again in an instant; making the audience feel as though carried on the tip of the drumstick. In contrast to this, the camera slows in the scenes in-between, giving the audience rest and delivering the mundanity of Neiman’s outside life. Chazelle’s approach conveys a contemplative tone in these slow scenes, and makes each upcoming performance an anticipated rush, full to the brim when it arrives with a physical, emotional energy.
Occasionally this energy tips towards the melodramatic. The fact that this remains unnoticed, however, lies in the film’s inherent ability to carry you with it, swept up to its highs and drowned in its depths. There’s no room for perspective until you’re way out the door.
Come Whiplash‘s end – whether the films parting shot is ambiguous or certain reveals as much about where the viewer lies as its characters – all the film’s minor flaws are left unheard in the cacophony, equal parts percussion and the blood rushing in your ears, and eclipsed in hindsight by the scope and scale of its successes. When Whiplash hits you can feel it and when it misses you can’t even hear it.