As a stress-inducing exercise in cinematic asphyxiation, Whiplash is this year’s Gravity. Where Alfonso Cuarón’s film placed an astronaut into merciless space, writer-director Damien Chazelle chucks 19-year-old jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) into the merciless grasp of a brutal music instructor (JK Simmons). And just like Gravity, Whiplash is bound for Oscars.
Teller’s performance transcends his previous roles, infusing Andrew with natural innocence slowly warped by a necessary arrogance as he seeks to “be the best”. This passion drives him, but also traps him in the torturous tutelage of Fletcher, played by the brilliantly frightening Simmons. Andrew wants to please Fletcher, but Fletcher keeps the bar drastically out of reach by implementing physical and psychological cruelty that is not only sickening, it’s calculated – a method he’s refined to an abusive art-form. The tension comes from how far Andrew is willing to stretch himself to get to that impossible bar, and whether or not he’ll snap in the process.
Adding elements of claustrophobia to Fletcher’s fearful classroom, Chazelle confines his shots to confronting close-ups and superb macro-photography of sweat-covered cymbals and Andrew’s bleeding hands. Outside of practice, the filmmaking simplifies, creating a contrasting sense of ease.
A rigid subset of audiences may not accept the plausibility of the scenarios (again, like Gravity), but those who submit to the film will be treated to a masterful finale that stills the lungs and silences the mind. At its last beat of the drum, Whiplash allows you to exhale, only to force you into another quandary: do you applaud in admiration or quiver in horror?
‘Whiplash’ plays nationwide Thursday, October 23