Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Recent Watches: Whiplash (2014)

Every once in a while, something comes out of nowhere. Half a year ago, “Whiplash” or its writer/director Damien Chazelle wasn’t on anybody’s lips. After the film’s explosive premiere at Sundance, it shot to the top of countless critics’ best of list. And now the film is nominated for five Academy Awards and poised to win at least a few of them. The praise is absolutely deserved and “Whiplash” is as explosive as its title suggests. For a film about someone pushing themselves as far as they can go as an artist, Chazelle’s own drive has seemingly taken him from obscurity to the highest level of critical acclaim. No wonder the guy was inspired to make the movie…

Andrew Neyman is a young college student just accepted into a prestigious New York music academy. Neyman’s instrument of choice is the drums and he’s committed to playing them as well as possible. He’s plucked out of the regular jazz band to the JC band by a teacher named Fletcher. Fletcher immediately makes it clear his method of teaching is brutal, as he pelts each of his students with profanity-laced rants. Andrew struggles under Fletcher’s intense methods, always pushing himself to be better, and to meet his outrageous teacher’s standards. An insane battle of wills ensues between the two of them.

Most of the readings I’ve seen of “Whiplash” interpret it as a film about how far people are willing to push themselves to reach greatness. It’s about that, sure. It’s also about J. K. Simmons as the greatest screen villain I’ve seen in a long time or maybe ever. Simmons, a recognizable character actor that is well known to film fans but is probably the Farmers Insurance guy to most people, gets the role of a lifetime here. His first scene, the first in the film, introduces Fletcher as condescending and demeaning. When first around his jazz band, he berates a student to a breakdown, tearing down the kids’ confidence with unrelated comments about his weight. When Andrew first plays drums in Fletcher’s class, the session ends with the kid getting a folding chair thrown at his head and a rant that reduces him to tears. Simmons delivers impassionate rants laced with the most colorful and expressive profanity. His control over his students is absolute. A key sequence has Andrew, along with the other two drummers in the class, practicing all night, Fletcher demanding more and more from them until there’s blood on the drum kit. Simmons is completely compelling and utterly despicable as the most tyrannical teacher ever put to film.

And why does he do it? Why does Fletcher push his students so far that someone’s going to punch him eventually? (Which, of course, happens.) A candid moment has him talking about how he pushes students to their furthest limit, in hopes of finding greatness. His excuse is that those that can’t take it, that break under his abuse, aren’t destined for greatness. A few other scenes show Fletcher acting like a normal human. He gives Andrew a smooth prep touch on his first day. Before a big performance, he’s seen casually chatting with a friend in the hallway. However, it’s all for show. Fletcher is Satanic inside. Before the film’s climax, he makes it absolutely clear that he’s a sadist, determined to break Andrew partially for revenge but mostly because it amuses him. Fletcher is the idea of a teacher taken to its total extreme, a wicked man not interested in fostering young minds but instead in crushing spirits and breaking hearts.

And can Andrew stand up against such a terrifying enemy? Miles Teller, as definitive an up-and-comer as I’ve ever seen, plays Andrew as someone who cuts out everything in his life in pursuit of his art. Long sequences are devoted to him drumming until blisters cover his hands. Blood flies from his fingers and sweat pours from his face. After an all-night practice session, he dips his blood-drenched hands in a pitcher of ice water. He dumps his cute, promising girlfriend because he believes a relationship will distract him from drumming. A day when everything goes wrong climaxes in his car getting smashed by an eighteen wheeler. Andrew pulls himself from the literal smoking wreckage, grabs his sticks, and runs back inside to keep drumming. He keeps going, half his face covered in blood and his hand likely broken. After given an opportunity to walk away from Fletcher’s psychotic rampage, Andrew goes back. It’s a battle now and he’s not giving up. Teller is fantastic in the part. The script isn’t afraid to make Neyman unsympathetic, such as a sequence where he picks a fight with his extended family around the dinner table. You wonder how much of Fletcher is rubbing off on him. If the Academy was less stuffy, Teller probably would have been nominated too.

That battle comes to a head in an utterly intense finale. In what has to be one of the best edited musical sequences in any film, Fletcher invites Andrew to one more performance. This is the vile villain’s final chance to destroy the boy. He fucks with him, having the band play a song the kid doesn’t have sheet music for. What has been an hour-and-thirty of Simmons berating Teller finally becomes a duel. Andrew challenges Fletcher’s authority, meeting his madness head-on. “Whiplash” climaxes in a nine-minute drum solo that is expertly, fantastically edited and directed. Chazelle’s direction is as tight as can be, the editing is at a rocket’s pace, and his more-then-capable cast keeps up with him. What an incredibly intense finale to an incredibly intense movie.

Is “Whiplash” a subversion of the “inspirational teacher” sub-genre that takes the story type to its most perverse extreme? Is it a story about what some people are willing to do to achieve artistic greatness? Or is my take the way to go, that “Whiplash” is a battle between a monstrous teacher and the only student determined enough to best him? Is it a display for an intense, unstoppable performance from an incomparable Simmons? Well, it’s definitely that last one. Either way, “Whiplash” is definitely the most captivating, mind-blowing, breakneck thriller of the year. And it even makes jazz music listenable… [9/10]

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