On the Silver Screen – Whiplash
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash explores the obsessive need people have to strive for greatness under brutal conditions.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a single mindedly ambitious Jazz drummer attending the Shaffer Conservatory school. He is singularly focused on becoming a music legend and will do whatever it takes to get there. Throughout the film his obsessesion more than crosses the border into unhealthy territory as he sacrifices different aspects of his life as well as compromising his health to achieve his dream.
My previous experience of Miles Teller hasn’t been positive. I’ve only seen him in awful films like Divergent and That Awkward Moment up until this point so my impression was far from a positive one. In those films there was nothing to reccomend about his performance and I found his characters really grating. I’m happy to say that I thought he did a really good job in this film. There was a nice subtlety to his acting conveying a wider range of emotions.
He plays Neiman as being a reserved yet driven individual who clearly enjoys his own company above the company of others. His classmates don’t like him -or at least he thinks they don’t- but he doesn’t really care since his full attention is on being the best and achieving his dream.
Neiman goes through a lot emotionally throughout the film. He starts off as being shy, reserved and lacking confidence but becomes more than a little arrogant as he gets closer to his dream. He is always confident in his ability but has self image issues due to the effect his environment has on him. I liked how emotionally distant he was and Teller plays the socially awkward aspects of the character really well. There’s also a perceived need to be great that seems to push him into acting irrationally. He allows himself to be emotionally and physically abused by his instructor.
J.K. Simmons completely steals the show as the music instructor Fletcher. The extreme close ups of his face only enhance the imposing nature of his character. There are few actors who can yell quite like J.K. Simmons and this is some of his best work doing so to date. I was only watching the film and I was terrified of him. It was great to see the other characters cowering in fear at his treatment of them.
It was a good decision to keep Fletcher somewhat mysterious. There was no real explanation for him being the way he is but shades of his past creep through now and again. Most of the time he’s harsh and uncompromising but little hints of humanity sneak through now and again. There’s a really good scene with Teller’s Neiman where he seems to radiate emotional honesty and the audience gets a hint of vulnerability from him. Simmons handles the layers of the character really well.
Having him constantly dressed in black and seen in low lighting really added to the imposing physicality of the character. His unpredictable nature made things contantly interesting as well and added a lot of intensity to his scenes. Seeing him randomly hit his students or throw equipment around the room shows just how terrifying he is in his brutal treatment of his students.
I’m not sure if he’s a character that should ever be liked but I found him immensely entertaining to watch. Some of his dialogue is incredibly bigoted or insensitive but he delivers it with such venom that it actually comes across as really funny. The conviction behind Simmons’ delivey really adds a humourous element to it. I suppose it’s fairly darkly funny because many of us will have actually met people who talk like that or treat people in similar ways. The narrative never tries to make him a sympathetic character which I found refreshing. I was happy to be disgusted by his behaviour throughout.
His desire for perfection was the most interesting thing about his character. His use of emotional and physical abuse to motivate his students into doing their best does seem to work. People are eager to play for him as he is considered the best at what he does but his methods are questionable at best. There was an interesting quote where he said that the worst thing anyone can be told is “good job” which pretty much sums up his character. Any praise he does give out is temporary at best and he persistently reminds his students that they need to constantly do better. A good performance one day doesn’t give them a free pass on the next. He only takes seconds to decide that someone doesn’t measure up as well showing that he gives people a very small window to impress him. The way he plays the students against each other to motivate them to do their best is sort of sinisterly genius. The film proves that it works but does that make it right? I like that the film allows the audience to make up their own mind.
Naturally the central relationship of the film is between Fletcher and Neiman. It is far from a healthy relationship and definitely a one sided one. Neiman is adamant to almost kill himself to win Fletcher’s approval. Fletcher affords him some approval throughout the film but it’s far from extensive and certainly not permanent. Several references are made towards pushing Neiman to earn his place and Fletcher is constantly forcing him to earn it. The results are painful to watch as Neiman damages his emotional and physical wellbeing for pretty much no reward. He gains practically nothing for all his hard work and Fletcher clearly knows that.
It’s not a relationship that has any development in a traditional sense and none of it is resolved. I liked that Fletcher didn’t have some sort of epiphany that causes him to change and become a softer human being as a result. The film makes it clear that he’s always been like that so hoping to change that is unrealistic. Neiman is just the sort of vulnerable character who seeks approval from such an overpowering individual.
Stylistically I think the film works very well. It’s always very dimly lit and encourages a fairly foreboding atmosphere. The actors are normally shot uncomfortably close which makes the whole feel feel incredibly claustrophobic. When Fletcher is up close to his students the effect is felt by the audience. As an audience we are really invited into the perspective of Neiman as he becomes more swallowed by the ego of his instructor.
In many ways the film reminded me of The Social Network in the way that it closely follows the mindset of the main character but the madness on screen provides comparisons to Black Swan. It doesn’t enhance or hurt the movie in any way but it is something that stuck out for me. There’s a sense of familiarity about the style that kind of makes it feel a bit easier to digest.
There were some parts of the film where I felt that the emotional aspects weren’t dealt with as well as they could be. There are plenty of scenes of Neiman relating to Fletcher but there’s no real sense of how it feeds into the rest of his life. It’s interesting how approval from Fletcher directly causes a surge of self confidence in Neiman on a couple of occasions but it does result in a fairly clumsily developed romantic subplot with Melissa Benoist’s Nicole. I understood the intention of showing that Neiman is unable to sustain a relationship with a member of the opposite sex but it was too ill developed to be effective. Similarly his relationship with his Dad seems a little underdeveloped where it could have been an interesting contrast to have a nurturing familial connection being more prominent.
A really strong story that deals with the physical and psychological effects of striving for greatness.
The character driven story is really well put together with plenty of opportunities to explore how the characters are feeling. Both of the central characters are well developed with a really solid focus on their relationship. It proves to be memorable and interesting by never really progressing or resolving which makes it feel a lot more realistic in many ways.
At times the emotional aspects weren’t dealt with as well as they could have been.
Miles Teller does a good job as the shy and socially awkward jazz musician who has flashes of self confidence when he gains approval from his abusive instructor. There’s plenty of subtlety to his performance and a genuinely tortured aspect to his personality.
J.K. Simmons absolutely kills it as Fletcher. He’s intimidating and imposing while also having moments of real humanity to the performance. There’s an implied backstory that we never quite learn about but the proof of his past is in his personality. He wants nothing less than perfection and has no problem getting to that stage through emotional and physical abuse. Simmons is note perfect in playing multiple aspects of this character with a constantly high level of intensity.
The muted lighting helps to create a foreboding atmosphere that matches perfectly with the use of closeups to make the film feel very claustrophobic. The audience experiences Fletcher from the perspective of Niemen and it helps play up the intensity of the character.