WHIPLASH is a phenomenal film, a masterpiece of acting, writing, directing and editing all working together in synthesis like the operatic work of a jazz genius. It must be, since the film is about jazz music, but director Damien Chazelle and editor Tom Cross, working with J.K. Simmons in his Oscar-winning role and Miles Teller in a brilliantly underplayed performance transcend the boundaries of typical music-inspired films. This is classical filmmaking at its finest.
I would do the film a disservice by not talking about the editing, some of the finest I’ve ever seen, which combines all the talents into an orchestrated manic work of inspired cuts, creating some of the most intense sequences I have ever seen. I’ve never felt such an adrenaline shot to the heart as I have watching WHIPLASH.
*I highly recommend seeing this movie knowing as little about it as possible. As such, spoilers follow*
The heart of the film however, at least the heart of the story, begins and ends with Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Great movies are known for their great villains and Fletcher is a true monster. He stands beside Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers although he certainly doesn’t kill anyone. Not directly, at least, although the film hints that he may have had a hand in one character’s death, and certainly has directly contributed toward the mental and psychological anguish of others.
What really puts him in the rank of these classic movie monsters is that he keeps coming back. Again and again, just when it seems like he has finally perished, been put down by our heroes, he rises again. The film throws curveballs at you like a deranged baseball pitcher, devising left-hooks and double-crosses of our expectations over and over. Fletcher just won’t stay dead, in a manner of speaking.
How did Chazelle manage to capture such subdued yet dramatic and abrupt changes in the tone of his film? The final sequence can stand alone as one of the most shocking and aching 180° reversals any film in the last year has featured. In it, Fletcher appears docile, finally broken in by our hero Andrew Neiman (Teller), defeated in service of the main character’s arc, only to, in one astonishingly subtly delivered line, reveal the depths of his sinister mentality. A testament to Simmons here, this reveal comes as a slap to the face to both our protagonist and us ourselves.
By the finale we should have known better. We first meet Fletcher as a hard-ass music instructor who walks in on Neiman practicing, chastises him, conducts him briefly and disappears as quickly as he came. Our second impression is the opposite. We hear rumours of his prowess, but when he formally meets Neiman he is kind, interested, caring. Surely he isn’t the monster we’ve heard him to be. A few moments later and he throws a chair at Neiman’s head with no clear indication that he meant to miss.
Not quite my tempo.
Thus begins the battle between Neiman and Fletcher, two men, one striving to be great, one who possibly knows he never will be. Fletcher acts as though he sees potential in Neiman, but instead it seems as though his motive is to gruesomely grind any and all passion out of him, leaving only a shell of a wanna-be drummer remaining. Neiman will not be discouraged and his absolute commitment to being a great musician leads him to break up with his girlfriend, alienate his family and piss off his bandmates more than once. A competition develops between Neiman and the other alternate drummers, all vying for the core position, willing to bleed for it.
Fletcher will only accept the man who sheds the most blood, and this is his vengeance. For what, we’re not quite sure.
I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker. I told you about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker, right?
— Terence Fletcher
Is Fletcher’s true motive to create another Bird or simply to exorcise his demons into the body of the next willing participant? Fletcher’s blood sacrifices are of whichever kid with dreams of being a star happens to be sitting behind the drum kit. He will push them until they bleed and beyond. All that matters is that they keep tempo.
Throughout the course of the film, Fletcher faces many defeats at the hand of Neiman. He loses his job, he loses his orchestra, his masterpiece, his chance at redemption or at least his chance at surrogate recognition. He becomes little more than a passive piano player, plucking out lazy jazz in front of a disinterested audience in an underground bar. When Neiman reconnects with him, he lets his guard down and speaks about his own hopes. Then he offers Neiman a second chance.
Since we’ve been invested in Neiman’s dreams, which have been destroyed in their own way, we see the change in Fletcher. This man, who once drove Neiman to near death because of his obsession, has seen the error in his ways and come to the light.
And then in one moment, everything changes. Up until now, we have underestimated the violence in Fletcher, if that was even possible. A slight reveal, a change in the music, and Fletcher destroys Neiman completely. He has risen once again to the kill.
Like Voorhees, Myers and Krueger, Fletcher cannot be killed, not fully. His spirit haunts every frame, a sinister presence lurking in the shadows. Fletcher’s weapon is his mind and his unrelenting tempo, that measurement of speed and agility he forces onto his students until they collapse. A knife can kill the body, but Fletcher intends to annihilate the soul.
This makes him a great movie villain, one that will stand the test of time. A great movie succeeds on the strength of its villain. WHIPLASH is a great movie.