“Whiplash”: Obsession, betrayal and all that jazz

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“Whiplash” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:46, four stars out of four.

“Whiplash” begins with a blank screen and the sound of a single snare drum beat, starting slowly and building to almost unbearable speed and intensity. It’s a sound that mirrors what its main character goes through, pushed harder and harder and faster and faster until you’re sure he’ll break.

And it mirrors what the audience goes through in this daring, brilliant, exhausting film. I felt wiped out and exhilarated at the end of Damien Chazelle’s second feature, a drama that plays on your nerves like a thriller.

The film opens with a shot down a hallway, where in a far room we see a young man (Miles Teller) practicing on his drum set. He’s Andrew Neyman, a student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music (I guess calling it Schmulliard would have been too obvious).

To us, he seems like a good jazz drummer. But we soon realize we’ve been watching him from the perspective of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s fearsome teacher. Within a few seconds of hearing him play, Fletcher cruelly decimates Andrew’s playing, leaving him crushed as Fletcher walks off into the night.

“Whiplash” is a power struggle between these two men — teacher and student, fellow lovers of jazz, enemies. Rather than crumbling in the face of Fletcher’s withering assessment, Andrew resolves to try harder, play better, pounding the skins until his palms bleed. Then he bandages his hands up and keeps playing.

Eventually Andrew plays well enough that Fletcher gets the nod to sit in with Fletcher’s first-tier jazz band, turning music pages for the first-tier drummer. What Andrew learns is that Fletcher’s wood-paneled practice room is a chamber of horrors, with students pitted against each other, belittled, physically abused, insulted to the point of tears.

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It’s an exciting and terrifying place, and Chazelle’s editing masterfully captures the tension and the energy in the room, bouncing quick cuts from close-up to detail to back again, to a long, swirling shot in which the camera spins around Fletcher and glides to the back of the room, straight into Andrew’s terrified eyes. It’s a showy shot, sure, but so effective in illustrating the control that Fletcher exerts over every note and every person in that room, perched at the front like a gargoyle. He’s like Sauron with a backbeat.

Still Andrew presses on, through tears and blood. As much as “Whiplash” is a struggle between these two men, it’s a struggle between two father figures. Fletcher is one, and the other is Andrew’s own widowed father (Paul Reiser), the sort of ineffectual nice guy who apologizes when somebody else bumps into him. Failure is okay, he tells his son, “You get perspective.” “I don’t want perspective,” Andrew snarls back.

So who’s right? Does genius come from joy or terror? Are we at our best when we feel nurtured and safe to be our best selves, or do we need to be backed into a corner, terrified, willing to fight and claw our way out to save ourselves and go beyond?

Some critics think “Whiplash” has a definitive answer to that question, but I think Chazelle leaves it much more open-ended, preferring not to make a statement but simply to use those questions to fuel great drama. The actors relish the great parts Chazelle has given them; Teller is such a usually affable actor (“The Spectacular Now”), but the driven Andrew is a complex, not altogether likable person. And Simmons is just magnificent as Fletcher, a ruthless man who uses every tool in his arsenal to break his students, convinced that that’s the only way to truly make them.

“Whiplash” even has one of the most perfect endings of the year, down to the right second. It’s one of the best of 2014.

 

 

 

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