Monday, October 27, 2014
In recent years, the American independent film has become as much a genre onto itself as it is a label distinguishing it as a work made outside the Hollywood system. The Sundance Festival movie in particular was burdened with all sorts of expectations which over time created a stereotype called the "indie." Featuring a cast of young up and coming actors, peppered with a few veterans working for little pay in the hopes of breaking out of some sort of career rut, the worst kind of indie generally recalls a special moment in a young man or woman's life, weighted with a deep, life altering lesson, all under an acoustic score by some folkie/emo instrumentalist who possesses enough street cred to sell some soundtrack albums. Where "independent" once connoted originality, "indie" now simply means lo-fi. That's why Whiplash is so refreshing. 2014's Sundance U.S. Audience and Grand Jury Prize winner is a vibrant, jazz-inflected drama that's also an anti-indie. As it goes into general release this week, Whiplash is poised to take awards season by storm.
Essentially a two-hander, Whiplash follows the tempestuous relationship between Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, and his famously exacting instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). On his own Neiman obsessively practices to the point where his hands bleed, but under Fletcher's demanding tutelage, he spirals toward a fiery self-destruction. Based on young director Damien Chazelle's less extreme but still frustrating time as a high school jazz drummer, Whiplash is as vivid a thriller as any other you'd encounter. Highly impressionistic as it plays out almost entirely from Neiman's clouded perspective, there is a torturous repetition to the drilling Fletcher inflicts on the young drummer that is matched only by the abuse Vincent D'Onofrio's Private "Pyle" receives at the hands of R. Lee Ermey's sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Whiplash is that intense.
Arrogant and loathe to make friends, Neiman is not the most sympathetic hero. His obsessiveness is a reaction to his father (Paul Reiser), a gentle high school teacher and underachiever who was abandoned by Neiman's mother. The one hope he has of avoiding a spectacular burnout is a new relationship he starts with lonely Fordham University student Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Holding his own as Neiman, Teller is a talent to be sure. But there is no question that he is eclipsed by Simmons. As Fletcher, Simmons' withering gaze and loud yelling belie a cold, unfeeling demeanor, surgically applied in the direction of someone who might represent a promising student to anyone else. In one early lengthy scene where Neiman seems to be off tempo, imperceptibly to the viewer, Fletcher holds the rest of the elite conservatory band hostage for hours into the early morning until the young man gets back on the proper beat. At one point Fletcher even throws a chair at Neiman's head in a reenactment of an apocryphal Charlie Parker anecdote repeated often in the film. Simmons attacks the role of Fletcher with such gusto that it is no overstatement to say that this music instructor could come out on top in a fight with Simmons' frighteningly nasty prison inmate Schillinger from HBO's Oz.
Chazelle expertly manipulates you back and forth between siding with one or the other of the two musicians. At times one identifies with the masochistic Neiman, until he destroys even the most tenuous thread of a bond between himself and his relatives over a family meal they invited him to. Other times, the punishing Fletcher earns one's respect once he admits his pushiness is a way of tempering a new discovery into a formidable musical genius. Most of the time, though, one marvels at the command Chazelle exhibits as he enlists Simmons, Teller, Tom Cross's brilliantly rhythmic editing and the syncopated, drum-centered score by Justin Hurwitz to propel us through a heart-stopping depiction of instructional sadism run amok. Like the Don Ellis song which shares its name, Whiplash is brilliant, challenging and riveting in all the ways one looks for an independent film production from a novice talent to be.