I rewatched Whiplash to write this review, even without me needing to in the slightest. There’s your first hint as to how the rest of this review is going to go. Whiplash appeared on the scene early 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award; from there, it rode a slight wave of praise from the festival all the way to its October release date, where the praise and accolades it received positively catapulted to the stars, and it received a number of solid category nominations at the Academy Awards, including being one of only 8 films that year nominated for Best Picture. Truly, Whiplash was the little film that could. So, is the film itself worth all that’s been said about it; is it worth the watch? To respond to that question with a mere yes is to criminally undersell what Whiplash manages to achieve as an entertainment product. I intended only to watch Whiplash to gather notes for this review, which I was able to do; what I wasn’t counting on was getting swept back up into the action, the emotion, and the wave of adrenaline that all caused me to start shaking slightly during my watch, especially during the film’s climax, which I’ve seen many viewers and reviewers regard as one of the most spine-chillingly awesome endings of any film out of 2014. You might wonder how a little indie film about jazz musicians can achieve this effect, through the film and through its ending. All I can say is, watch Whiplash. You will understand.
Andrew Neiman is a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, regarded as the top music school in the country (I got a definite vibe of Juilliard from the reputation of Shaffer passed around in the film). A drummer in one of the school’s jazz ensembles, he dreams of being the next Buddy Rich; a dream that takes its first steps towards realization when Andrew is picked out of his class to join Shaffer’s top studio jazz band by its conductor, Terence Fletcher. Fletcher has quite the shining reputation inside the school and outside in the jazz circles, but Andrew learns firsthand the lengths that Fletcher will go to toward his students to achieve true greatness from them, and when Andrew basically becomes Fletcher’s protege and primary case study, he begins to lose his humanity and his sanity in his quest to win Fletcher’s approval and to achieve true greatness. Right from the first scene, the film fully establishes the central conflict and dynamic between the two main characters, leaving the film no other option but to let that initial impression grow and climb through the rest of the film, which turns out to be an excellent decision given how the conflict develops. The construction of the film is very indie, featuring quite a few shots that might come up in a Youtube parody of independent films, but you know what; when the result is this goddamn good and effective, any flaws in the film’s production and execution fall by the wayside. That the film is relatively simplistic and straightforward in its construction, I believe, allows the film’s true merits to shine through, amusingly enough given the musical focus, thanks to the film’s rudiments. There is not a note out of place in this film, a line in the wrong spot, a shot out of sequence, a camera move not purposefully done, and that the film is as well constructed as it is even being as basically constructed as it is is a testament to how well it ultimately works. I’m a sucker for great editing, especially if it’s in time with the music, and great editing in time with the music is basically the pitch for Whiplash’s final cut; this win for Best Film Editing at the Oscars was absolutely no contest. Another Oscar win that wasn’t even a contest is J.K. Simmons’ win for Best Supporting Actor; as Terence Fletcher, Simmons is an absolute monster of a villain, in every sense the word monster can be taken, and as a fan of Simmons’ work in other films and roles, I’m ecstatic that he was given a character like this that he could really knock it out of the park with. Opposite of Simmons as Andrew, Miles Teller also really impressed me, especially since I basically didn’t know who he was before this film. If you’re one to think of Teller in only his minor roles in franchises or as Reed Richards in the latest Fantastic Four disaster-of-a-film, don’t; he really gives Simmons a run for his money in almost every scene, and that he was apparently a self-taught drummer makes his effort all the more remarkable.
I’ve been thinking of how to close out this review of Whiplash ever since it was added to the list, and what I’ve decided to do is something that I don’t think I’ve ever done on this site up to this point; I’m going to call out my fellow 1001 reviewers on their reviews of this film. Of the two that have been posted so far (that I know of, at least), along with some of the comments on them, both generally appreciated the film’s merits and construction, but took great offense to the central lesson that they saw the film trying to get across: that the unrelenting abuse Fletcher heaps upon Andrew in order to get him to improve himself (in Fletcher’s words) beyond what is expected of him not only works, but is ultimately a good thing. Here’s my response to that, and it’s going to take several sentences to get to my point. Does the film endorse this idea? I don’t know, but I can definitely see how many have thought so; I can absolutely say that the film definitely doesn’t argue against it. Are Andrew and Fletcher both generally horrible people, and is Andrew’s horrible-ness ultimately what causes him to respond to Fletcher’s methods? Yes, absolutely. Does Andrew achieve greatness, and thus are the tactics used by Fletcher ultimately successful, and therefore justified in the context of the film? Yes. Now, here’s my point: does any of this mean that Whiplash is not an absolutely outstanding film? No. Not in the slightest. We’ve all watched plenty of films with absolutely horrendous main characters, absolutely twisted villains, and absolutely repugnant central lessons that the film bases its story and structure on. But, and here’s the kicker; if the film or those characters/performances are truly well done above and beyond not even your average film but your really good ones, then it will and should be revered as a great film. People don’t hold Triumph of the Will to as high a standard as they do because they can totally get behind the central message of that film; they do so because it was a revolutionary documentary and propaganda film, and one that, despite its central message, continues to influence documentaries and films to this day. That, is truly a film of the times, and Whiplash, even with its central message, is absolutely a great film. Yes, I agree that people shouldn’t be reading into the film’s message as something that they should be taught is a good thing or the right thing to do. But to discount the achievement that Whiplash is purely as a piece of entertainment or to take stars off the rating of it because one finds themselves against the morality of the central players or villains of the piece is, to be frank, unfair. Whiplash has my vote as quite possibly the best all-around film of 2014, and it sure as hell earned it, even if I as a person would’ve walked out of Fletcher’s classroom after the first bout of abuse he hurls at that trombone player, and been right in doing so. It doesn’t matter; whatever way you slice it, this is unquestionably a magnificent film, and even with its message and central characters, it’s one I can watch over and over again and still get chills every time I do.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10