Whiplash

For the love of all things holy, keep tempo!Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Desert IslandWhy I Saw It: The awards buzz around Simmons was catnip, and still awaiting the greatness from Miles Teller.
What I Thought: MASTERPIECE. Unmissable. Unforgettable. Went to Desert Island on a single viewing, likely to reign indefinitely in my all-time Top 25. (Update on 2nd viewing: make that Top 15.)

Whiplash. Dir. Damien Chazelle. Perf. Miles Teller J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist. Sony Pictures Classics, 2013.

A dedicated conservatory student watches his dream of studying under a celebrated professor turn to nightmare under the latter’s ferociously exacting standards.

Do you know what you’re capable of? Do you have greatness – true empirical greatness – inside of you? If you don’t think so, is there anyone in your life who does? (Whether you believe them or not. And by the way, I believe you do.) If you do, have you been able to actualize it? If not, do you really want to?

I mean, really want to. And what would it take for you to do so?

Our young Andrew Neyman knows he has greatness inside him, and he’s going to do, and to give up, whatever it takes to see it actualized.

Or so he thinks.

He’s earned his way into a competitive conservatory to study percussion, with sights on studying under the imposing figure of bandleader Terence Fletcher. Fletcher is an daunting figure indeed, yet ultimately kind in a gruff, drill-sergeant kind of way.

Or so Neyman thinks.

See, Fletcher will have greatness seen… and he doesn’t much care what has to happen to see it. Or so Neyman thinks.

And this time, Neyman may be right.

Thus begins the most riveting cinematic relationship of 2014 thus far, and certainly one of the top 100 in film, as Fletcher begins his relentless assault on everything standing in the way of Andrew’s greatness, up to and including Andrew himself. In this searing character study by writer/director Damien Chazelle, we find out, along with Andrew, how far it is rational (even ethical) to push someone (including oneself) in order to birth the talent of a generation and the legacy of a life.

Because, as Fletcher would argue, we don’t really know where that talent is, if it is there at all, until we absolutely refuse to take No for its answer. Until we we summon all stubbornness and resolution to draw deep enough upon the self to tap into the depths of the soul, the way Ed Harris descended in The Abyss – past all supposition, past belief (conscious or otherwise), past the good opinion of others, past any plaintive cries of “I can’t!” (hearkening Jon Voight in Runway Train, as he snarled,”You don’know what you can do and what you can’t!”).

On the other hand, Fletcher may be a madman. An insensate perfectionist couching a sadistic streak within the mantle of professorial wisdom. Or maybe his charges are just too young; they’re in college now, but still aren’t fully formed as men and women who can withstand such scrutiny and “guidance.” Or perhaps he’s just in the wrong environment, better suited to boot camp (think Full Metal Jacket), or better yet, the “special nature and operational tempo” of SEAL training (think G.I. Jane). Or… maybe he’s right. Criminy…

So is this mentoring, or is it Stockholm Syndrome? Method-to-the-madness, or just madness? Is Fletcher dishing out more than is reasonable, or is Neyman masochistic for taking it? Or both, and reasonableness has long since taken its leave? Or neither, and this is simply the psychological and spiritual hazing necessary to a triumph hopelessly out of reach yet so close you can taste it?

The mind starts to boggle. Neyman’s sure does (as does his well-meaning dad’s, portrayed by a pitch perfect Paul Reiser).

Whiplash represents an Oscar-worthy accomplishment in script, direction, editing, sound, and performance. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, it calls forth landmark performances: Miles Teller fulfills the promise of Rabbit Hole and secures his future alongside the likes of Tom Hanks (perhaps even jettisoning “the likes of”), and J.K. Simmons shames every casting director who ever underestimated him, turning in nothing short of a revelation.

A revelation not because we didn’t think he had it in him, but because he we finally get so see it (I tell you what, those Farmers Insurance commercials will never look the same). Lots of us loved his wry wit in Juno, and some of us have known him for years as Law & Order‘s Dr. Emil Skoda, but so often his best scenes (there and elsewhere) are so quiet that they slip past unnoticed. Except by Chazelle, praise be.

One notable occasion hinting at the prowess we see in Whiplash could be seen in Skoda’s interview of a young serial murderer in training; Skoda questioned her sharply and aggressively, but also remained mindful that he was, in fact, speaking with a child, and Simmons handled the scene with skill on every level. Another beauty may be found in Up in the Air, in which he gets fired by George Clooney; the ten seconds of silence after Anna Kendrick hands him his separation packet are laden with the nuance of a lifetime, the kind of moment that we’re so caught up in the impact that it’s easy to overlook the person bringing it to us.

He won’t be overlooked anymore. Guaranteed. If Simmons never acted again, he can rest his head on the pillow knowing that we know. And I for one can rest my head on the pillow in bliss for the knowing of it.

While both deserve Best Actor, I do pray it’s a leading/supporting role pairing, thus may they sweep. Will it happen? Unlikely, but then again Demián Bichir was nominated for A Better Life, so baby, anything is possible. (Not unlikely that Bichir was deserving, but that all the machinations came together to result in an actual nomination. Just so we’re clear.)

Both transformed come film’s denouement in ways not anticipated, we suddenly realize that Neyman and Fletcher aren’t finished with each other, and as the two resolve their differences in an almost gladiatorial showdown, they both find their answers by releasing us to the credits in a daze.

This is Potter & Dumbledore: MMA Edition, with drums. And it will reverberate in your soul for days, weeks, even perhaps years to come.

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