Whiplash - Cinema Review

'There is an irresistible fire within Simmons any time he is on screen, crafting in Fletcher an extraordinarily powerful presence who will be indelibly imprinted upon your mind'.

J. K. Simmons' wholeheartedly deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in Whiplash, whilst technically accurate, feels somewhat misleading. If the film is one character's story, then that character is undoubtedly drum student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), with band leader and musician Terence Fletcher (Simmons) a major supporting figure in that story. But, in reality, Whiplash is Simmons' movie from the moment he first appears on screen.

Simmons' role as Fletcher is the performance that deserves to mark the actor out for big things in the imminent future, following a career characterised by consistently solid performances in somewhat prosaic parts. There is an irresistible fire within Simmons any time he is on screen, crafting in Fletcher an extraordinarily powerful presence who will be indelibly imprinted upon your mind.

Had Simmons made Fletcher a cut-and-dried villain, Whiplash would undoubtedly still be a very good film. But it's the finely nuanced performance from the actor, working from Damien Chazelle's sharp and authentic screenplay, that regularly makes the writer and director's film an outstanding one. Fletcher is an arrogant, abusive bully, there is no doubting that - nor does Chazelle ever try to excuse or hide this from the audience. But within the music teacher's extreme, un-PC methods, Simmons intersperses an undeniable charisma. There are occasional clear moments of comedy in Whiplash, particularly early on, but it's a humour which we almost immediately feel ashamed to have laughed at, as if we've somehow enabled Fletcher's regularly heinous actions. His character assassination of an out-of-tune trombonist springs to mind: initially funny, but soon revealing itself as something much darker. It's a balance with which many actors and directors would struggle, but one which Simmons and Chazelle strike perfectly again and again.

Whilst Fletcher's behaviour is often excessive, Simmons wisely and skilfully never allows him to become a caricature or farcical figure. The actor sculpts a starkly authentic, human individual, one who has a clear passion and talent for music and who is perpetually driven by this. Fletcher's seemingly genuine belief that what he does is all for the good of his students, and in a wider sense for the world of jazz music, makes him all the more fascinating.

Teller as Andrew has a formidable task making his presence felt opposite Simmons, something he at times struggles with early on. The young actor soon rectifies this, however, delivering a performance of conviction and energy as Andrew gains confidence as both a drummer and in standing up to Fletcher. The character's journey feels pleasingly reminiscent of that seen in Aronofsky's Black Swan, albeit with considerably more grounding in reality. Chazelle teases us with occasional Hollywood clich├ęs, such as the teen romance between Andrew and Nicole (Melissa Benoist), before taking them in unexpected directions to emphasise the sacrifices Andrew chooses to make.

Chazelle shows a keen eye for detail throughout, using a variety of close ups to pick out the intricacies in his story. There are powerful images within Whiplash that will stay with you: droplets of blood reverberating on a cymbal; a pitcher of iced water died crimson by the raw drummer's hands plunged into it. This is also a continual feast for the ear, the soundtrack brimming with a wealth of irresistable jazz.

There are only a few niggles holding Chazelle's film back from perfection. Andrew's relationship with his father (Paul Reiser) feels perfunctory at best, never getting beyond its purpose as a plot device. The film's ending will likely leave some with the sense that Fletcher is never fully brought to justice for his tyrannical teaching style. However, minor imperfections aside, Whiplash overwhelmingly presents a powerful, intoxicating sophomore effort from the director that deserves to mark him out, along with Teller and Simmons, for great things in the near future.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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