Sunday, 23 November 2014

WHIPLASH (2014) Film Review

Check it out... if you're a fan of fast-paced cinematography and editing, effective and harrowing performances or jazz, for Whiplash encompasses all of such and more

Skip it... if you have little taste for stories involving musical triumph or hardship, or desire something conventional or full of generic-isms, something of which Whiplash boasts none of

Whiplash poster
"Even for those not infatuated with the art of music, Whiplash is undoubtedly must-see viewing for all fans of impressive, fast-paced and stylish cinema."

Whiplash is the definition of grueling cinema; an adrenalin-filled escapade that doesn't let go of its grasp upon the viewer until the very second it finishes. It's engrossing; it's punishing; it's intense to a point. When so many films struggle to garner even the slightest ounce of suspense and emotional detriment, Whiplash strives far away from the pack and delivers gut punches left, right and centre. Nothing is held back for the commercial directorial debut for screenwriter and former drummer Damian Chazelle, who also penned the script for this magnificent film. Centering around the character of Andrew, an avid drumming student at Shaffer's Conservatory in New York, one of the most prestigious music schools in the United States, Whiplash follows the young man's decent into a single-minded pursuit; to be one of the greats in drumming. When he is promoted to drum alternate for the most acclaimed jazz band at the college, Andrew believes it to be a gift, an opportunity to finally show his talent to the best of the best, and to be recognised for his dedication, commitment and unrestrained persistence to be the best. Upon his first rehearsal, though, Andrew discovers that the facade of absolute professionalism and civility that has been put up around the band's image is in fact a distorted perception of the individuals within the group; in fact, the conductor for the band, the much-lauded and well-respected Terence Fletcher, is a man capable of brutal intensity, and is very much willing to intentionally pressure and demand perfection from his students at all times. As Andrew, an immensely self-assured and confident player, is put up alongside the aggressive and uncompromising personality of Fletcher, the two collide in a fit of entitlement, professionalism and desire to produce 'the best', whatever that may mean for each of them. 

Even for those not infatuated with the art of music, Whiplash is undoubtedly must-see viewing for all fans of impressive, fast-paced and stylish cinema. This is first class entertainment; a film which captures the ferocity and vehemence of an action film of the likes of Edge of Tomorrow, alongside the exploitative tendencies and emotional range of a motion picture like Gone Girl. Whilst one may initally consider this a highly misled comparison, I would urge you to see the film and understand it for yourself. Whiplash trudges the oft-times unethical subconscious of a man so driven to succeed that he will cause himself physical harm attempting to perfect his drumming charts and technique; and this is before he is introduced and given direction from Terence Fletcher. Even before Fletcher takes a central place within the film, Andrew is dedicated and committed to the idea of accomplishing complete excellence. Thinking and focusing on his musical skill all times of the day, as well as laboring over his kit late into the unforgiving nights, Andrew is a man bent on providing the world with a new talent; something never before seen, in the vein of a great like Buddy Rich. However, when he is given a man like Fletcher to guide him on his quest to this formidable attainment, Andrew becomes more than just another student, willing to push himself to a certain limit; at this point, there is no limit. The idea that there is a boundary to one's perseverance and determination seems to fade away into obscurity as Fletcher begins to challenge Andrew's skills by yelling at him, swearing profusely, smashing drums, throwing chairs and instigating a very colourful array of homophobic slurs. The films intensity beefs up as these two individuals try to battle each other to the depths of their reserves, and prove to one another that they are the real deal; Andrew as a capable and proficient drummer, and Fletcher as a man who genuinely feels that the key to greatness is in the conductor; the person who can push the musician to their breaking point and back, and cause them to traverse what seems like the impossible. 

As the film wages on, Andrew's social life becomes abysmal, and the film makes a point to focus on this component of the protagonist's personality; his dismissal of other human beings that are not in direct correlation to his advancement in the drumming world is both initially concerning but later on entirely understandable, at least from a directorial stand point. Chazelle's cinematography and screenplay help to allow us into the mind and thought process of Andrew, and so his complete drive quickly becomes understandable from a viewer's point of view. The lighting is down-tone, orange in flavour and reflective of the palette that is used for jazz concerts. Whilst this initially seems relaxing and welcome contrast to the tone of the performances and the tense pace, we quickly realise that the lighting has an almost dream-like quality to it; darkness blocks out all the outside noise and people, and all we see is the dismal and moody atmosphere that Andrew is subconsciously shrouded within. He blocks out all those independent of his point of view, the only people mattering being himself and Fletcher. As the intensity of the conflicts between the two men increase, the lighting only reflects this more, dramatic lighting cues popping up all over the place to give a new-found heat and extremity to the situations. Right before the final performance of the film is about to occur, the film seems to visibly remark upon the lighting increasing in power, as Andrew physically reacts to the strength of the lights. 

This idea that Andrew conceals himself from as much social interaction as possible is furthered by the fact that there is little resolution to a number of key plot lines within the film that in any other film would affect Andrew on a far more personal and character level than his drumming does, these including his relationship with his dad; a romantic subplot which takes up but a small portion of the running time, and a rivalry with a fellow drummer which the film barely remarks upon during its final act. None of these people influence Andrew's drumming, except in negative ways (at least in his eyes); his father is constantly overbearing and, from Andrew's point of view, holding him back from the scrutiny and pain he needs to feel to become the best drummer he can be; his romantic interest within the first act, barely touched upon afterwards except for once during the final portion of the film, Nicole, is distanced away from after Andrew attempts to explain to her his insurmountable desire to focus solely on his musical craft. After this supposed resolution, Nicole is mentioned and brought back within the final act, however briefly, and then does not receive her due final resolve; in fact, her entire plot line is seemingly cut short by the impending challenges that Andrew is to overcome, again, all relating to his craft. This plays into the idea that we are witnessing this film completely from Andrew's point-of-view, that anything he sees as unimportant or as a diversion is immediately thrown aside. It's unimportant. To Andrew, there is only one thing in life that is worth his dedication, that being drumming. 

As the film heads to an absolutely brutal and harrowing third act, the cinematography, which is at first slow and subtle, becomes more precise, quick and taut. The first shot of the film is from a handheld perspective, moving freely, slowly and with human characteristic; the final shots of the film are all close-ups and medium shots, placed to give a vibe of immense tenseness and pressure. The final drum solo of the film allows Chazelle, alongside outstanding cinematographer Sharone Meir and impeccable editor Tom Cross, to get up close and personal with his protagonist, highlighting individual sweat beads, bloody fingers and engaged pupils, all whilst Andrew smashes away at his kit with a speed and ferocity seen rarely within cinema. Miles Teller as Andrew gives his best performances during these immensely tight and rapid scenes, shedding tears, frustration and pure anger, all whilst hammering against his percussive equipment with great haste. It's undoubtedly mesmerizing. What's even more mesmerizing, though, is JK Simmons portrayal of the ruthless Fletcher, who never stops abusing Andrew all throughout these engaging portions of film. Even as our protagonist is reaching his breaking point, knocking out rhythms of 300 beats a minute, Fletcher is still in his ear, yelling absurd threats and accusations; throwing chairs; grabbing his floor tom and smashing it against a far wall. So even whilst the camerawork is heightening in pace and power, an unrestrained force of pure terror, chaos and authority is looming above, pushing Andrew harder and faster, not relenting even at the hardest of times. It's both difficult to watch, and entirely beautiful on a technical front. 

The music itself is phenomenal, the actors all engaging in the craft with honesty and realism. Teller appears to genuinely know the drum kit off by heart, and performs with vitality and a practicality not so often seen from films involving music. Whilst there are a number of times where its obvious to someone who does understand music or plays drums that there is a backing track over the actual, performed instrumentation, it never seems to detract from the quality of performances; and anyway, to get a film of this length with this many drumming performances this close to perfection in regards to this component is quite admirable, so whilst many will undoubtedly be fazed by some of the off-timings occurring here and there throughout the film, I personally wasn't affected by it. Speaking of the music, the pieces chosen by Chazelle and the music supervisors that are used in the performances are all fast-paced and immensely catchy cues, so I applaud Chazelle for boasting of a keen sense of ear and musical taste, something that not a lot of directors can properly claim. Furthering the musical component of the film are composers Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, responsible for the score to the film; a darkly understated jazz vibe echoes all throughout, the bass guitar and double bass coming in handy throughout the most intense of scenes. The score often borders on meaningless and without creative direction, but Hurwitz and Simonec provide enough energy and build to sustain the music even in its most minimalistic of moments. A combination of both jazz influences and a strong, unnerving psychological undertone, reminiscent of thrillers in the vein of The Bourne series (in regards to its bass-pulsing tendencies) help to further elevate this astounding film in the musical sense.  

Everything surrounding Whiplash screams award-worthy, and the possibility of numerous nominations by the Academy in some of the more major of categories, including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director and Best Film, seem inevitable. This is the kind of film that has a viewer gripping the arm rests and sweating vividly onto their seats; this is most certainly not the kind of film you want to take a date on. The film excels in regards to nearly everything that it attempts to tackle, whether that be the psychological and social ramifications of immense perseverance and dedication in a single area, the sacrifices that are necessary to properly indulge in something that one loves, and the heartbreak that occurs when one fails at something they've tried so desperately hard to achieve at. Whiplash is not your typical achievement film; whilst it has an emotional payoff for the protagonist towards the very end of its running time, it more often than not punishes him and yourself for the decisions made throughout. Many will find Andrew unrelatable or hard to sympathize with, though that seems artificial; Andrew is a reflection of a desire that we all feel; to achieve. His journey turns a mirror upon us, the audience, and examines how we all try to aim the highest and furthermost, and punish ourselves when we fail to reach such. Andrew is the physical embodiment of the pain and struggle that we all go through on a daily basis to be the best at something, whatever that may be. Whilst he may be ethically questionable or morally ambiguous at certain points, he is most certainly relatable in the sense that he is driven to achieve; the difference between him and us is that he is driven to achieve, no matter the cost, whilst the same would generally not be said for the majority of the audience. The title 'Whiplash' not only refers to a piece that the jazz band plays during this film, a piece that Fletcher abuses Andrew for not playing perfectly during his first rehearsal; it also refers to a thematic core of the film. It's a reference to the character of Fletcher; a man so volatile, erratic and unpredictable that it's like a jolt to the head of Andrew, and to us. He erupts with unforeseeable aggression and power, and whips us into a frantic headfirst sprint to an energetic climax; a climax that is ultimately composed of satisfaction and self-gratification, after the grueling pain of the past hour and a half. Whiplash is one of the best of the year, and one of the best I've ever seen.


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