**WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL AND FINAL SPOILER ALERT!!**
Whiplash, written and directed by newcomer Damien Chazelle, and starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, is one of the best, if not the best film of the year. The film tells the story of 19 year old Andrew Neiman (Teller), an aspiring and ambitious jazz drummer in his first year at the acclaimed Shaffer Conservatory, and his relationship with the school's infamously demanding conductor, Terence Fletcher (Simmons).
The film is nearly impeccable in all areas. First time director, Chazelle, masterfully creates and maintains a palpable tension throughout the entirety of the story. The storytelling is so streamlined and efficient that there is not one wasted scene or even a wasted moment. Every single moment is built upon the previous and builds toward the next.
The performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are unquestionably brilliant. Both actors deserve, at a minimum, Oscar nominations, as does Chazelle for the script and his direction. Watching this film and their performances in it, reminds me why I love cinema and acting as much as I do. This is one of those films which gives me hope that exquisitely sublime acting can still matter, and that artistic films of tremendous quality can overcome a business model and public that more often than not discounts them in favor of mindless big-budget retreads and sequels.
Miles Teller as Andrew, plays the awkward teenager, struggling to fit in and make his way in the world, so perfectly that it is, at times, uncomfortable to watch. There are no seams to Teller's performance at all, he simply inhabits Andrew in all his discomfort, desperation, need, ambition, sweetness and ugliness. Teller never makes a false step by veering into sentimentality or manipulation. He so thoroughly brings Andrew to life in such a genuine and organic way that Andrew feels familiar to us and so we recognize him from our own lives, as maybe our son, a brother, a desperate friend or God forbid…ourselves. The skill and power of Teller's performance binds us to Andrew so that we cringe with him, celebrate with him and deflate with him through all of his ups and downs.
J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher has an energy that is so concentrated and direct that it is palpable. He pulsates with a focused ferocity and cutting brutality that is as magnetic as it is repulsive. His performance is, like Miles Teller's, the work of a master craftsman. It is specific, precise and distinct yet irresistibly dynamic. When Simmon's Fletcher unleashes his wrath, those around him only pray that he doesn't direct that energy at them, and when he directs it at someone else they put their head down, keep their mouth shut and thank the good Lord that it's the other guy getting it and not them. Fletcher is a cruel bully who emotionally, physically and mentally abuses all around him, but by the end of the film he is proven to be not only vindictive and vicious…but effective. Simmons makes this ferocious and callous man Fletcher a real person, so that even in his remorseless brutality to those around him, we never feel he lacks passion or doesn't care…it is just what he cares about and if it's too much, that is in question. Fletcher is interested in transcendent greatness, and will do most anything to see it form before him, including destroying those who lack the skill, and more importantly, the will, to be great.
The Fletcher character reminds me of the quote from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds." Fletcher is death, the destroyer of Andrew's world and the world of all artists who aspire to exalted greatness. Fletcher is destroyer to Andrew's ego, his self-image, his worldview, his hopes and his dreams. All those things must be destroyed in order for Andrew, and all artists, to complete the hero's journey and become, not just a man, but a god who walks upon the earth. Andrew must leave his father, and his father's approach to the world (settling for 'good enough') and embrace Fletcher's (the unrelenting search for greatness), even if it is through spite and vengeance toward Fletcher, in order to complete his hero's journey. Andrew must be emptied in order to find the greatness that lives deep with him. Fletcher is the one who destroys Andrew's self and leaves him bloodied and broken in front of the world, and in that naked humiliation, at his lowest point, devoid of everything, Andrew is able to discover the greatness that was hidden within him all along. It is his anger and hatred at Fletcher that at first brings the needed vitality to birth this newfound greatness, but once it breathes the air of life and becomes manifest in the world, Andrew's anger and rage towards Fletcher fades and he is left in a state of near religious ecstasy as he becomes one with his drums in musical precision, passion and perfection.
Whiplash works not only as a straight forward story of a young man coming of age as an artist and overcoming obstacles to do so, but it is also a great mythical tale of the hero's journey into the sacred ground of the gods and the gatekeeper who protects that sacred ground. Andrew is, of course, the hero on the journey, and Fletcher is the gatekeeper, be it the dragon, or Cerberus or the Sphinx, who puts all initiates to the test, and only those who pass his grueling gauntlet will be allowed into the inner sanctum of the gods where the treasure of golden music resides. Andrew must answer all questions posed to him, and survive all tests Fletcher-dragon puts to him, in order to even be considered for entry into the revered ground. And even after passing the tests, it isn't until Andrew releases his old self, symbolized as his being son to his father, and he walks away from his father and takes the offensive against the tyrannical Fletcher-dragon, is he able to prove his courage and worth and gain entry into the sacred land of the gods, where Apollo, Greek god of music, or Saraswati, Hindu Goddess of music, or Dionyssus, god of religious ecstasy and ritual madness, is conjured and made manifest in Andrew's playing. He then stops playing the drums, and the drums start playing him, the music and Andrew, are in the hands of the gods now, and the music that is a result of this mystical and supernatural intercourse is gloriously divine.
The hero's journey that Andrew embarks on is the same journey that all artists, be they musicians, actors or writers must go through. In my experience as an acting coach and teacher, the struggle I most often see is that of aspiring actors being unable to truly empty themselves and lose their old self in order to embrace the new self that is waiting for them if they only would have the courage to make the leap towards it. In working with actors, I am often reminded of the 'oedipal' section of The Doors song "The End" in which Jim Morrison sings of killing his father and fucking his mother. So many actresses I have seen need to kill their father, symbolically of course, to free themselves from the fear of his judgement, in order to become great. Actors need to kill their mothers (and fathers) in order to stop being sons, in other words children, and start being men. Like Andrew, sons are always on the defensive, but when they 'kill their fathers', like Andrew did in walking away from his father, they are then free to go on the offensive, which is where freedom lies. It has been my experience that the overwhelming majority of both actors and actresses lack the courage and the will to symbolically kill their parents, and their work suffers as a result of it. Parental judgment, whether real or imagined, can, and almost always does, destroy the freedom needed for artistic greatness to flourish, and leaves in it's wake the lesser choices of entertaining and performing. Thus all artists who strive for greatness must at some point kill their parents, again symbolically, in order to be free and empty enough to enter the hallowed ground of the gods where true greatness lies. Only once an artist kills their parents will they be able to complete their hero's journey by slaying their own personal Fletcher-dragon. This is the story of Whiplash, and it is the story for all of us who answer that most divine of calls, the sacred call to be an artist.
FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .