Movie Review: ‘WHIPLASH’ Keeps the Beat Steady As She Goes

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Preston Barta // Editor

WHIPLASH | 106 min. | Rated R | Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Tim Roth, Chris Mulkey and Paul Reiser

When it comes to great cinema the occasional little gems can break through a sea of bigger spectacles in the most skillful manner. Every year, we seem to have the next young adult adaptation, superhero sequel, and HOBBIT flick. But every so often, you’ll bear witness to a (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, SHORT TERM 12 or OBVIOUS CHILD. This year, we have received a few such films like the aforementioned abortion comedy, but the one on top of it all is Damien Chazelle’s highly intense psychological drama, WHIPLASH.

This terrifying terrific story puts forth a challenging idea: is it better to instruct a pupil at a normal stride and tell him or her “good job” no matter what, or is better to push him or her to their limits, unveiling their full potential? Instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) tries the latter on his drumming student (Miles Teller). The results are ruthless and brutal, but certainly make you wonder.

Everyone dreams of making it big, of being remembered for great things, of being compared to the likes of Peyton Manning, Jimi Hendrix, or Daniel Day Lewis. Miles Teller’s (THE SPECTACULAR NOW) Andrew, the protagonist of WHIPLASH, dreams of being the next great drummer, a drummer that will be remembered. What do you dream of? No matter what that may be, WHIPLASH will bring yourself to question your life and aim for greatness of your own.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons clash in WHIPLASH. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons clash in WHIPLASH. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The Twittersphere has been abuzz over Simmons’ (JUNO) performance as Andrew’s relentless instructor. His Terrence Fletcher is a fully fleshed out supporting role that should have Oscar voters wide eyed. Hardly a caricature, Fletcher is a man full of passion and hostility. Simmons’ disappearance in Fletcher is reminiscent of Christoph Waltz in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, a performance that found much heat on the awards circuit. Simmons’ FULL METAL JACKET turn will undoubtedly surprise any audience.

While Simmons’ may be stealing all the spotlight, Teller carries the movie on his shoulders in a striking way. He pushes himself to places we never envisioned that wisecracking and motor-mouthed young man would go.

Beyond these arresting actors, you can’t disregard the pen behind the performers’ words. Writer-director Chazelle is following in the footsteps of a young Bennett Miller (FOXCATCHER). WHIPLASH is an exceptional sophomore effort. Chazelle is no stranger to incredible writing: those who haven’t seen his feature debut, GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (2006) should seek it out. WHIPLASH may reach an entirely new level of eminence, but Chazelle’s prior work demonstrates how the writer-director has grown into a filmmaker to keep an eye on for years to come.

Chazelle takes inspiration from his own life, his love of cinema and music, and stirs them up into a gritty and layered experience with deep characters and fresh beats. You will ride along, just as the characters do, all the way to an ending that will bring you to tears and will have you applauding as the cymbals crash and characters clash.

WHIPLASH opens in limited release tomorrow.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.