When I was in high school, I had a chorus teacher who would throw chairs, clocks, and water bottles to get us to be the best we possibly could be. He would keep us late to rehearsal, and shout his head off about how lazy and privileged we were. Occasionally, he would cry because we sounded so good, or go into an extended revery about some tangentially related work of art like David Copperfield. He seemingly would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. After he went a little too far, he left the school. I don't know what he's doing now.
Watching Whiplash was like having PTSD-induced flashbacks of that time in my life. And like Andrew (Miles Teller), I loved every minute of the suffering it gave me. It's the best heart attack you'll have at the movies this year.
Andrew is a first-year drumming student at a mega-competitive music conservatory in New York (not Juilliard, by the way). He's courted by an instructor named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join his studio band, where he rises and falls in the ranks. Fletcher uses whatever means necessary to perfect his band, be it face-slapping, flying furniture, verbal abuse, and depriving the students of sleep. Andrew doesn't care about anything other than being the best drummer possible, so he's an ideal protege to Fletcher, despite the fact that the man is a monster and the best course of action would be to run in the opposite direction.
This movie is about the tolls that the pursuit of perfection take on us: physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. Everything is covered here. Andrew's hands bleed. He alienates his friends and family. He gets a girlfriend but drops her when he becomes convinced that her lack of direction will hold him back ("So was Fordham just a random choice for you?"). You think that this is the story of how the older man corrupts the younger, but it becomes apparent that Andrew was destined to be this way. When Fletcher says, "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job,'" you get the impression that this has been Andrew's mantra his whole life. He wants to be famous and well-known, but somehow doesn't care about the approval of the actual people around him, save for Fletcher.
It's a high-wire act for both Teller and Simmons, and they somehow pull it off. Teller continues his litany of great performances, creating a character who is the polar opposite of Sutter in last year's The Spectacular Now, but is just as believable. His drum performances—astounding, physical, and brutal—are shot in medium for a major part of the film, indicating a dedication to the material that you don't typically see in actors under thirty. Simmons is pure evil in his role, stripped bare of all adornment, from his bald head to his solid black attire. He's Mephistopheles-as-teacher, offering the promise of greatness and renown to Andrew at the cost of everything else. He spews venom but keeps the impressionable, ambitious kid coming back every time. It's a big, showy performance that deserves awards, and will likely win many of them.
But the real star is Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed the film. Despite the fact that the story is set in New York, it feels like a chamber piece. Chazelle shoots faces, bloody hands and drums, and practice rooms in tight, extreme closeup, shadows breaking across the characters' faces and throwing their eyes into dark relief. The camera glides around Fletcher, worshiping him the way his students do, and steadily burrows deeper into Andrew's face as the film goes on. The editing by Tom Cross falls in step with the terrific big band score by Justin Hurwitz, driving us into the music-obsessed psyches of the characters. This film crackles with energy and maintains a steadily mounting tension throughout, leading to a climax that is almost unbearable to watch in its tautness.
It's a virtuoso offering by a young director, about as good as any film about art out there, and a contender for my favorite of the year, if not the decade.