I’m not sure I’ve ever been as terrified by an actor’s hand as I was by J.K. Simmons’ tempo-setting mitt in the meticulous, driving musician drama Whiplash.
That's a compliment to Damien Chazelle’s Sundance prize winner, a spellbinding make-or-break movie aimed at those who have ever wanted to be good at something. At anything. Simmons' hand represents failure. It represents a miscalculation on our part. It's the visual cue of, "You're doing it wrong. And God help me, you better start doing it right... and immediately." Which is what Whiplash does. It gets it right. Over and over again.
Not that this is Simmons' story. Not entirely. The usually arrogant Miles Teller actually reveals a different shade to his on-screen personas by playing Andrew. The semi-confident but still vulnerable freshman drummer at a prestigious New York conservatory aspires to play in the jazz outfit run by Fletcher (Simmons) – a hard-nosed instructor who accepts nothing less than perfection. Their confrontations shape Andrew’s journey, though step back on Whiplash and you see it’s largely a story of self-sacrifice, of personal determination, and of the futile quest to seek approval from a person who might not be willing to give it.
Chazelle’s Whiplash is the jazziest, snazziest, most punishing movie I’ve seen this year. Airtight editing boasts the pristine precision of a well-oiled symphony, but the movie doesn’t sacrifice the messy rush that goes with an improvised jazz composition. When Chazelle falls in tune with the instruments in his band, Whiplash bounces and soars with a wonderfully creative urgency. And it does this repeatedly for the duration of its 106-minute dance.
That’s only half of the story, however. Andrew’s complicated quest for greatness in his field is marred by the many obstacles, both large and small, that Fletcher drops in his path. It’s cruel how often Chazelle lets both Andrew and the audience believe that this fledgling drummer has turned the corner, and is poised for success. A small smile will cross Teller’s lips, or he’ll allow his tightly-clenched shoulders to loosen, ever so slightly. We foolishly believe that the worst part of the “lesson” is over. But with Fletcher, the classroom never closes, and school is always in session.
Fletcher is a difficult character to play, a beautifully written monster, and Simmons figures out how to straddle the line between well-intentioned instructor and domineering sadist. The actor assumes the mannerisms of the on-screen drill sergeant, insulting his charges under the guise of making them “better” at their job. And that hand. You’ll cringe each time Fletcher clenches his fist in anger – not to hit, but to express extreme disappointment. The sign of the hand carries the same blunt force as a slap to the fact, or a punch to the gut. The tragedy of Whiplash lies in the truth that Andrew might never be able to please Fletcher and his hand. So why does he continue to punish himself on the drums? For his professor? For his supportive father (played by a compassionate Paul Reiser)? For himself? Please, tell me it’s for himself.
It’s easy to see why Whiplash took home prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. The crowd-pleasing study in creative motivations appeals to all of us who push ourselves to be the best at something. It asks how far we are willing to go to triumph at a skill or talent we believe that we have, and then wonders why we aren’t willing to go even further than that. It's also the best film I've seen this year to date. Go out of your way to see it as soon as it plays in a theater near you.