Review – Whiplash

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Whiplash is not a “horror film”. It’s a drama about musicians. I repeat: it’s not “horror” in the sense that anyone would define the genre. I feel the need to point that out, because this little student/teacher drama is the most terrifying “non-horror” movie I’ve ever seen.

Warning: I’m going to overuse that word here– “terrifying” – because there’s simply no better description. But before I go too far down that road, let me just point out that I truly believe Whiplash is the greatest film of 2014. (See my Top 10 Films of 2014.) Every single aspect of this production is perfectly calculated, expertly crafted, and the result is an experience that drives into your soul and stays there.

I don’t cry much in real life, but I have been known to leak a little at the occasional movie. No big heaving sobs or anything. Just the kind of overwhelming spine-shivering wave of emotion that involuntarily activates the tear ducts. They’re usually happy tears, or for the scrappy underdog giving their last, best attempt against insurmountable odds.

But never, in my entire memory, have I ever been LITERALLY SCARED TO TEARS by a movie. That changed while watching Whiplash.

You know that dream where you go to school, and there’s a big exam, but you never studied for it, never even actually went to this class, and, oh yeah, you’re also naked? Remember the awful feeling of that nightmare? Multiply that by 10, and you MIGHT come close to the climactic scene of this movie.

(I have other good analogies, but I can’t write them without spoiling the moment.)

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a young jazz drummer in his first year at the most prestigious, cutthroat conservatory in the country. JK Simmons plays Fletcher, Andrew’s teacher, director of the top ensemble, and a maker of the greatest musicians in the world.

But Fletcher’s techniques don’t just border on the sadistic; they thrive there. He wields psychological torture like a sculptor’s scalpel, using it to mold his students into an absurd level of perfection. Every word and action is a carefully crafted piece of an elaborate mind game that takes “winning” and “losing” to more extreme conclusions than you can possible imagine.

Simmons plays Fletcher with a terrifying confidence. I physically winced every time he was onscreen, which was most of the time. That meant I spent the vast majority of this movie in as much of a fetal position as the theater seat would allow. He is as scary as all the classic screen villains you can think of… combined.

For his part, Teller did an amazing job of playing Andrew as a young musician who sacrifices everything in his life, even his own blood – I have never seen so much blood in a movie about musicians before – to become the greatest. It’s sad that his performance might be overshadowed by Simmons, because they are both at the absolute top of their game.

Full disclosure time: I am a musician. It occurs to me that I might’ve had a more visceral reaction to this movie in part because of my personal background. I never studied jazz, and no I never had a sadistic coach like Fletcher. But anybody who has ever studied any form of art will know that these teachers really do exist. Maybe not quite to this extreme, but pretty damn close. We may even know one personally, and if not we know colleagues who have.

What’s more, we know that special relationship that forms between student and teacher. Fletcher is a personal mentor, coach, director, idol, and parent all wrapped up in one. The abuse he inflicts is all the more painful, because I can feel exactly where the stings land from each precise lash of his whip.

And finally, speaking of the title: Whiplash perfectly describes the form of the film. 95% of it is one long painful whip, but just you wait for that lash.

Whew, there’s that spine-shivering wave again!

[Check out more reviews by clicking the “REVIEWS” link at the top of the page.]

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