What was the tensest, best-acted, most electrifying movie you saw in 2014? Birdman?
Guardians of the Galaxy?
The Imitation Game?
If any of these was your answer, you didn’t experience the twisted pleasure of the indie gem, Whiplash, and that is a sincere shame.
When I walked into the theater, I had almost no idea what I was getting myself into. It was my first Saturday morning free in four months, and despite a pretty serious hangover, seizing the day felt necessary. “The world is your oyster! Go treat yo’self!” my culturally-appropriating hangover told me when it woke me up at 8:30 am. So, obviously, I went to the movies alone at 10 am.
I know, I’m really hitting this hangover thing hard.
I went on the recommendation of a friend, who said Whiplash was the best movie he’d seen all year. I hadn’t seen the trailer, and all I knew was that the film was about drumming and that JK Simmons was really good in it.
Whiplash was, in short, incredible—tightly paced, superbly acted, and surprisingly visceral. It was by no means Black Swan, but it had its hard-to-watch moments. A half-second shot of a spit valve being released is particularly burned into my mind.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and not just the icky parts.
Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, some other garbage movies) plays the lead—a drumming student at a prestigious music conservatory, quietly arrogant and hungry for greatness. JK Simmons (Spiderman, Farmers Insurance man) is a formidable conductor, who has plucked Teller out of relative freshman-obscurity, only to berate and abuse him as he does his other band members.
Simmons is, rightfully, getting a lot of press and awards for his turn here. It’s a role he was born to play (although he seems super nice IRL). The character is an asshole, but like an ogre, he’s got layers. He loves music so deeply that he lusts for perfection, and he needs his students to strive, nay bleed, for transcendence. His performance is crisp and mercurial. I hope this leads to a lot more Simmons in our future.
This film could easily go the clichéd route of, say, Mr. Holland’s Opus—tough, unconventional teacher eventually softens as scrappy, hard-headed student(s) make him incredibly proud in final number at Regionals (Or whatever. I’ve actually never seen Mr. Holland’s Opus, but I assume I’ve fucking nailed it). But Whiplash never strays down that path. Teller and Simmons have a predictably turbulent teacher-student relationship, but every time I thought, “Oh, here’s where he’ll win the old man’s approval” or, “Here’s where they’ll really pull it together, against all odds,” the movie yanked the rug out from underneath me. I basically had an ulcer when I walked out of the theater because I was so stressed the whole time. Again, this is a movie about jazz drumming.
PSA: You don’t need to be into jazz to be into this movie. My music taste is one part folksy sadness, one part electronic dancey, two parts Beyonce, and like ten parts terrible pop. I halfway considered getting into jazz after seeing Whiplash, but then I realized I was talking crazy, and turned on Nick Jonas. (Was “Jealous” out at that time? Probably not. But damn, that song is good.)
Simmons is favored to win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, as he’s been cleaning up all around town this awards season. The movie probably won’t win anything else, but the fact that it garnered at least 5% of votes to get the Best Picture nomination is win enough for me. In a season of snubs, this was one nod that felt both surprising and deserved.
Some internet nutter left a Youtube comment on the trailer saying that he had walked out after half an hour because the movie was predictable garbage. I was devastated for that man. In the last fifteen minutes, I literally gasped out loud. The end was the BEST PART, GUY!!! Don’t be that like that dude. Sit through this entire movie. Please. For me. And if you hate it…never tell me. We won’t survive it.