By Caspar Salmon | Film | October 15, 2014 |
By Caspar Salmon | Film | October 15, 2014 |
The key scene in Damien Chazelle’s often riveting Whiplash is the last one: everything has built towards this moment in the manner we have come to expect from music films, and we expect it to play out as such. The confrontation between the young musical prodigy and his tyrannical teacher has reached a head; he has everything to prove during this last big concert; an audience member coughs. Silence. Will he play his heart out and ultimately win over the crowd, as in Shine or, er, Sister Act 2? Chazelle elects to have his cake and eat it, by edging towards this kind of big finale but also doing something more, which is to have the scene throw a new light over the film you have just watched, and reframe it in disturbing terms. It ends on a large, seemingly triumphant note that is actually more of a question mark.
Whiplash ostensibly tells the story of the musical education of Andrew (Miles Teller), a young man studying drumming at conservatory, by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the college band, who pushes the young man to breaking point in his search for musical perfection. In the beginning, the movie cleaves to standard rules for this sort of film: Andrew is discovered noodling away on his own, is given confidence to become a better drummer, attains the big time while getting too big-headed for his girlfriend and family. Tick, tick, tick. But a more sinister note gradually creeps in, perhaps not exceptionally subtly: the young man is being subjected to humiliations both mental and physical that amount to psychological abuse. This is the film’s triumphal moment, about an hour in: it has pulled the wool over the audience’s eyes by making us warm (up to a point) to the charisma and foul-mouthed perfectionism of the coach figure, only to reveal him for an ordinary brute and a bully.
The picture plays like an action film, or a thriller: in carefully constructed scenes that are shaped by the insistent rhythm of the drumming, Chazelle shows Andrew striving, pushing himself — and Fletcher coaxing, beating a performance out of his protégé. All of this is filmed in a brawny way, with the camera seizing on blood, sweat and tears, and punchy editing heightening the confrontation between the student and teacher. A script full of profanity and sharply homophobic zingers underscores the sense of a virility-off between the two men and hints at a more troubling relationship built on sadism. After the relationship between the men has soured, a scene in which Andrew seems not to notice that he has been victimized, clearly aligns the film’s theme with abuse. He seems to want to protect his tormentor, to excuse his treatment. In these moments, the film is quite devastating, especially when Paul Reiser, playing the uncomprehending father, tries to connect with his damaged son.
So much in the movie marks it out for greatness — in particular the performances Chazelle has elicited from his cast. There is an unassumingly natural quality to the acting in the early stages, and Miles Teller embodies the young student very well, showing the merest trace of flint beneath his tentative demeanour. J.K. Simmons, looking like a Pete Postlethwaite action figure with his shaved head and all-black jazzer’s get-up, is commanding and captivating as Fletcher, delighting in his caustic barbs and abrupt changes of temper. As the film grows in tension, the performances become ever more muscular, with Teller and Simmons seemingly pushing each other to new heights in a way that mirrors their roles. Paul Reiser, plays Andrew’s simple, bewildered father, manages to be tremendously affecting in a handful of scenes.
Not everything is perfect here: some of the characterisation tends towards the schematic: the father is obviously a normal, salt-of-the-earth guy and Andrew’s girlfriend is the sad and betrayed Minnie Driver to his Will Hunting. The filmmaking can be a little by-numbers at times, with some repetitive shots of drumming, and the odd Rocky-style montage. And no movie should employ the ‘everything-suddenly-goes-silent-during-the-concert’ tactic anymore.
In the end, it is your reading of the finale that decides whether the film has failed or brilliantly succeeded. There are two ways to view it. In the first, the film has no interest in debunking the machismo it has spent so much time displaying: this is a simple confrontation between the two men, playing as a standard face-off. This interpretation would seriously undermine the film’s discourse on abuse and lend it a rather tawdry quality. In a second possible interpretation, the student and his teacher are finally playing out a sick enactment of the perverse bond that unites them, and there can be no winners. Your choice.
Caspar Salmon lives in London. You may follow him (and his London Film Festival tweets) on Twitter.